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An Open Letter to the Democratic National Committee

Stop sending me e-mails.

The substance of your emails is such that they insult me. On any given day I get desperate pleas for 2, or 3, or 5, or 10 dollars. Often more than one, sometimes as many as a dozen.

If I were to respond to one in ten (for three dollars each), I’d be looking at not less than $21 a week, or $1,092 a year. If I were to respond to all of them, it would be $210 a week, or 10,920 a year.

That’s about half my annual income.

I get it. Believe me, as a vet: as a disabled vet who has to have a part-time job to have more than $18,000 a year after a career in the Army, I get it. As someone who sees the people he works with who are working harder than that to have as much as that, I get it.

As someone who cares about women’s rights, and civil rights, and economic equality, I get it.

As someone who cares about the environment, I get it.

As someone who cares about the effects of our foreign policy, I get it.

And I see that you don’t get it.  You have caved in on things like reforming Wall Street. You’ve caved in on things like holding the people who committed torture accountable (as a career interrogator that pisses me off more than you can imagine).

You’ve caved in on women’s rights (both economic, and reproductive).

And still you come to me asking for a substantial piece of my income, so you can continue caving in.

Stop. Stop caving in. Listen to Sen. Warren. Listen to Sen. Sanders. Listen to the people who are out working to get unions in Wal-mart and MacDonald’s.  Listen to Warren Buffet when he says we need to fix the tax code so secretaries aren’t paying a bigger share than CEOs. Listen to The People.

Stop listening to Big Business.

Stand for something other than being not the Republicans. Do that, and I might be willing to let you beg for my money again.


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The ACLU has let us down on The Rule of Law

I’m angry.

This isn’t new. I’ve been angry for about 11 years now. It ebbs and flows, depending on the news, but it’s always there. I wish I had some handy object to be angry about, instead of an ever present sense that the thing which pissed me off wasn’t miasmic.

The proximate cause of this round of more present anger isn’t, actually, the report which the senate released about the torture the US engages in. Nah. There isn’t anything new in that; not to me, nor to anyone who has been paying attention for the past 10 years. No, what angers (and saddens) me is larger than that. It’s about the rot at the soul of the country.

I am not a naif. I know (and knew long before Khandahar and Abu Ghraib) that the US allowed people to get away with torture, and that some branches of the gov’t were sanctioning it; even if they weren’t doing it themselves.

Pinochet, and Pahlavi, and Samoza, and Marcos, weren’t just people we put up with being bastards. They weren’t just bastards we supported and encouraged: they were all bastards we put into power (which wasn’t true of Hussein and Noriega; not that I think that would have helped either of them when the Bush family decided it was no longer useful to pretend they were of service as bogeymen, after they stopped being sufficiently subservient to “our” ends).

Nope. Governments are large and scandal is worse than failure. Who cares that someone broke the law (and some skulls), so long as it can be covered up, and plausibly denied?

It’s not that I am surprised to learn that torture became an essential part of the proccess, nor that it corrupted the stream of information. I’m not surprised to learn that thigns which didn’t have torture to, “verify” them weren’t believed, nor that people were tortured to confirm things which then had to be reconfirmed by the expedient of simple follow up up in the field (which could have been done first, and so would have obviated the rationale for torture. It’s what I said would happen, because it’s what always happens when torture becomes a run of the mill tool.

So that’s par for the course. What shouldn’t be is that when such a thing breaks out of it’s box of plausible deniablity that we decide to sanction it.

I’m not much of one for the, “broken windows” school of policiing (esp. because the policies which walk abroad under that rubric are 1: fundamentally racist, and 2: anti-thetical to a nation ruled by laws*). I do, however, think that when a flagrant violation of the law takes place, then something needs to be done.
Sadly, not everyone agrees. Some of this is base hypocrisy. When someone tells you they have no problem with “stop and frisk” (or some other “broken windows” based idea) ask them if Bush, Cheney, et. alia, ought to be charged.

Not convicted, but haled into court and made to stand trial for crimes they admit to having committed (sometimes you can put their hypocrisy into plainer light if you get them to say, “yes, it’s illegal, but sometimes you have to; then you admit it and face the music, at which point they tap dance to explain why it’s different this time. If you have a yen for making people look like complete fools ask those same people how they feel about Clinton’s impeachment; then ask why that situation (a non-criminal fib, is so much more important than breaking laws against torture).

It’s better if this person is one of the “St. Ronnie” crowd. Becuse it’s not just the Geneva Conventions which were violated, but a law against torture which Reagan sponsored; which he touted as being a bedrock of our moral values. It’s not that we’ve always ignored them (nor that we’ve never had fools and idiots who didn’t care whom we tortured, so long as it was never someone who looked like them; and they are usually white). We even sent cops to jail for waterboarding people (in Texas of all places).

But none of this is new to me. I’ve been saying some form of this, in print, and at conferences, for ten years.
What saddens me is how deep the rot has gone. We’ve come to the point where no one thinks we really have a nation of laws, despite Obama saying, “First and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law, and so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make,” when Darren Wilson being legally exculpated for murder. As a result the cops in Berkeley are shooting tear gas and rubber bullets at people when they choose to “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

But a nation of laws is only a nation of laws if they are applied. If we truly are a nation of laws, we need to put the architects of this systematic violation of several of our laws on trial. We could, I suppose, just accept that we have a class of criminal which is above the law, polticians.

Which isn’t true. It could also be argued, from recent history that we’ve still got the category of institutional fraudster/thief whom we absent from prosecution: viz Wall Street and the serial collapse of the economy by means of playing fast and loose with the law. It’s actually a larger category than that, given the disproportionate treatment of Enron’s Lay and Skillig [and the utter non-punishment of their lackeys] compared to the death of Eric Garner, or Michael Brown, or Tamir Rice or Amadou Diallo lest we forget this isn’t some recent problem. None of the dead people on that list were ever charged with anything; so far none of their killers has been either

Of course all the killers were cops. The cop who killed Garner was exculpated by a grand jury, they seemed to feel the homicide was justified; even though the cop was using a chokehold which was outlawed 30 years ago because (wait for it), it’s often fatal.

But the rest of us… we face the risk of ungodly sentences if we go to trial, because prosecutors pad the charge sheet to extort a plea bargain. We run the risk of years in jail even if we aren’t guilty.

All of which destroys the Rule of Law. It’s from such petty injustices that revolution spreads. It’s from the over-reaction to peaceable assembly that more serious injustice becomes festering grievance.

All of which has been on my mind in the past couple of months.

Brought to a head when I saw that the Anthony Romero,head of the ACLU, said the idea of the Rule of Law demands that we pardon Bush, Cheney, and all the people who committed the tortures they not only sanctioned, not only admitted to sanctioning, but boast of having overseen.

I am croggled at the double-think.

with the impending release of the report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I have come to think that President Obama should issue pardons, after all — because it may be the only way to establish, once and for all, that torture is illegal.

Got that… to show that torture is illegal… we need to pardon the people who did it. Those laws… they don’t mean anything, but saying, “hey, you committed a crime, and we forgive you, and all the guys who helped you…”
Yeah, I can see how helpful that is. I’ll bet that if we did the same for all the mobsters everyone would admit the Mafia was full of hoodlums. (/sarcasm) I get that Romero is frustrated that no one seems to have the stomach to punish the people who shredded the laws. I’m pretty chapped about it to. But there is no way in hell I am going to say that if we aren’t going to charge them we need to pardon them.

We tried that once before, with Nixon. What we got for our pains was the Cheney/Bush Administration, peopled with all the hacks who were still around from that mess. What they learned was two-fold, 1: hide everything, 2: if you commit big enough crimes no one will dare to hold you to account. To offer them a pardon (not that I think they’d take it, as that would mean admitting legal culpability and morally deficiency) would be to cement that idea. Married to the other ills we have from a lack of prosecutions the idea terrifies me, because he’s deluding himself if he thinks, Prosecutions would be preferable, but pardons may be the only viable and lasting way to close the Pandora’s box of torture once and for all.

They acted in the full knowledge that what they were doing was against the law. They didn’t care. Bush, more than once, casually admitted he was (and had been) breaking laws, and had no intent of stopping.

Which is is what makes me angry. We have become so jaded that we accept the idea that there is something reasonable about saying, “oh yeah, you broke US laws, violated treaties, killed innocent people; by torturing them to death (when they weren’t “merely” driven mad. Read the released summary, if you have the stomach, and remember that it’s only a summary. The entire thing is worse). But hey, because torture is SO FUCKING HORRIBLE, we aren’t going to put your ass in jail for the rest of your life, we’re going to forgive you, without going through the effort of having a trial and saying you are guilty, and ought to be punished, so we are going to pre-emptively pardon you; so everyone will know how serious we are about hating torture.

Fuck that noise. At this point I wish there was some sort of tribunal with the moral rectitude, and money/power to enforce the Noriega Doctrine, and haul them to the ICC by force.

Because we are fast forfieting any right to deny the international community the right to extradite them. Rumsfeld will probably never go to France again, and it wouldn’t disturb my sleep to know that Bush and Cheney, Rice and Wolfowitz, Woo and Bybee, were looking nervously over their shoulders, wondering when the tipstaff is going to show up behind them

But, for the sake of the nation as a whole, we dare not pardon them, even if that means they die without being prosecuted: because it’s possible a later age will take it up (as some of them are still young enough that there are decades in which this consummation [devoutly to be wished] may come to pass).

Moreover, the why won’t matter. What will be seen is that torture is an offense for which one can be given carte blanche ex post facto.

Bullshit. And we can’t extend the idea that of, “for the good of the state the bearer has been pardoned for what has been done”. It’s not so. It’s specious. There are dogs which ought not be let lie.

*“There are individuals whose propensity to crime is so high that no set of incentives that it is feasible to offer to the whole population would influence their behavior,” Banfield wrote. The most effective way to prevent violent crime in cities, Banfield theorized, would therefore be to pre-emptively abridge the freedom of the “mostly young, lower-class males” who were likely to commit crimes in the future. What’s that? You say that “abridging the freedom of persons who have not committed crimes is incompatible with the principles of free society”? Well, said Banfield, “so, also, is the presence in free society of persons who, if their freedom is not abridged, would use it to inflict serious injuries on others.”

If you read the original think piece about Broken Windows you see the authors praising cops who use, step outside the law to enforce, “order”: Sometimes what “Kelly” did could be described as “enforcing the law,” but just as often it involved taking informal or extralegal steps to help protect what the neighborhood had decided was the appropriate level of public order. Some of the things he did probably would not withstand a legal challenge…the police in this earlier period assisted in that reassertion of authority by acting, sometimes violently, on behalf of the community. Young toughs were roughed up, people were arrested “on suspicion” or for vagrancy, and prostitutes and petty thieves were routed. “Rights” were something enjoyed by decent folk, and perhaps also by the serious professional criminal, who avoided violence and could afford a lawyer… That’s the message of “broken windows”: Rich people have rights, the rest of us, not so much.

On the ground:

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This is (I hope) going to be short.  Before WW1 one of the signal skills a field commander (for sake of argument, I shall refer to them as Generals, even if, as Custer was, they weren’t actually, unless it’s relevant to the anecdote) needed was the ability to “read the ground.”

At the chance meeting which opened what became the Battle of Gettysburg Gens. Henry Heth (rebel) and John Buford (Union) were contending for the high ground of McPherson’s Ridge.  For the next three days two armies (in a meeting neither really wanted: Meade because it didn’t suit him, and Lee because it wasn’t where he’d have liked to have it) fought to maintain possession of the salient points of terrain near Gettysburg.

If you know any of the places in that battle, they are almost certainly bits of terrain which relate to the Union positions.  Cemetery Ridge (not to be confused with Cemetery Hill, which was also important), Little Round Top, The Wheatfield, Oak Ridge, Culp’s Hill, all of them are known because they were gr0und being fought over, or for.  Some, like Little Round Top, were critical points: if the rebels had gotten past Chamberlain, and turned the Union left, it’s possible Meade would have been embarrased†, and been forced to withdraw‡.

Now I’m going to draw a strange comparison: Pickett’s Charge, and the Battle of Hastings.  They both relate to terrain, and they both have to do with leadership, and the battle’s outcome (some of which has to do with the purpose of the war).  The Gettysburg came out in 1993.  I was fresh out of basic training (so much so that when some of the incidental music was “My Old Kentucky Home” I sat up straighter, as it was the regimental song of the command I served in at basic).  When the camera panned across the ground between Cemetery Ridge, and Pickett I gasped.  I sat there and trembled, in horror, because there was no way he could do it.

1: It was a huge distance, almost 4,000 yards between the lines; and another couple of hundred to breach them; if it had been a straight line, but it wasn’t.  2:The Union had batteries on their flanks: short of shot, but enough to decimate anyone marching formations that large in the open. 3: It was uphill.  Not terribly steep, but it doesn’t take much to slow a formation down. 4:  the Union forces had been able to set up breastworks.  They had some cover; at least enough to improve morale. 5: The rifles of the age let units in masse reach out to 1,000 yds.  With easy rates of fire running to 4 rounds a minute, and a moving pace of not more than 150 yards per minute the rebels were going to be under musketry for at least 8, perhaps as many as 10 minutes.  Preceded by cannon, then a lull, and then a renewal (because there was some ground dead to artillery).

Lee should have quite the field on June 2.  He could have quit on June 3.  He should never have sent Pickett and Pettigrew on that death march.  There was no way they could have held the Union lines, even if they had reached them in force.

Which brings us to Harald, and Hastings.  In some ways William has Pickett’s problem.  Assaulting uphill, against a fortified foe.

This was Williams view:

Up Senalc

It doesn’t look too bad.  Uphill some, but the Normans were tough; and they’d had a couple of days to rest up after the crossing.

This was Harald’s view:

Down Senlac

The ground looks a lot steeper facing down.  With his flanks secured by slope and bog, he was secure.  All he needed was to repulse the Normans until they had to retire.  He had hopes of winning by attrition.  They had no reinforcements.

This is how he set the field:

hastings-map

Horses couldn’t breach the line, because of that line of stakes (in a similar way Henry V secured his front at Agincourt: with his flanks secured by woods on either side, constraining the French, and making it harder for their advantage in cavalry and armor to be brought to bear), and the shield wall of the Saxons was a secondary defense of no small power.  William lost three horses; which forced him to take his helmet off, lest his followers think him dead. The two-handed axes of the Saxons were said to have dismembered horses, and riders.

So what happened?

1:  Harold was injured.  2:  Something caused a small break in the Saxon line.  They held, and repulsed the Normans, but some of them seem to have fallen prey to bloodlust in the disorder.  3: Harald either died, or was more severely injured.

That, ultimately was what turned the battle (though it didn’t end the war).  This was a smaller affair than Gettysburg, and more dynastic; not so much a national crusade.  It was more of a rumble to see who got to be top dog in the neighborhood.  With Harald dead there wasn’t anyone who had the combination of acumen, and charisma/status to keep the Saxons a coherent body in the field.

Which isn’t important to the question of reading the ground.  It’s still debated whether Harald ought to have waited to give battle, since he’d just made a forced march all the way from York, where he’d just had the same sort of fight Harald Hardrada of Norway to see who was in charge.

Reading the ground, and reading the enemy; and to some degree, the politics.  William was raiding Haralds personal properties; it was people to whom he owed a very specific loyalty who were being despoiled.  He also had to worry the Fyrd (i.e. the levy of troops) might decide they had done their service (he had kept them in the field for four months: they owed him about one: that’s without the question of the weather in S. England in Oct.  All in all, I don’t fault Harald for giving battle on that day.  Had it not been for his being injured, it’s quite possible he wouldn’t have lost.  Had he carried the day, odds are William would have had to go back to France, and let go of his claim.

This isn’t such an important thing on the scale of armies anymore (though in some regards it is.  Tommy Franks deep drive into Iraq in 1991 was as much because it was great tanking country, and the US had great tanks, as it was anything else, just as Harald’s choice to be on top of a boggy hill was meant to neutralise the horsepower of William.  On the small unit level, reading terrain is what it’s always been; a matter of life and death.

†in a military context a unit/commander is embarrased when the flanks have been turned: and the enemy is at right angles to the friendly position.  Not only is the weight of attack intense on the closest part of the exposed unit, the rest of the unit has no idea what is happening.  In the age of black powder this was magnified by the inability to see the enemy once firing commenced.  What usually happened was the flanked unit broke formation; exposing a new unit to the horror of being flanked.  This often “unzipped” the entire line.  The classic example (in the gunpowder age) is Frederic the Great at the Battle of Leuthen. Though such collapse also happened in the days when muscle drove the weapons (usually when it was cavalry on the exposed flank)

‡The rebels tried to do just that in the North of the field, on the first day, but Robinson’s Bde (New York)  had two battalions (13 and 104) refused.  By virtue of high ground and the refused right they were able to manage of fighting retreat, and the rebels (under Ewell) didn’t exploit the vacancy. Gettysburg was full of such touch and go moments most of which were Union mistakes the rebels failed to completely exploit; which is why Lee was willing to repeatedly reinforce failure.


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On fighting, and combat skills.

 

(There are lots of youtube links, as illustration.  I have anchored to the point I need, and (hope) I have indicated which one’s are specific, and about how long to watch them)

I’m going to assume you think our ancestors weren’t stupid.  I’m going to assume this because I assume you aren’t stupid. It happens, however, that lots of narrative about fighting is both stupid,  and assumes our ancestors were too.  Charlie Stross has a series of guest posts on “martial arts”*  they are good as far as they go§, but they gloss a few things.  Some because they weren’t relevant to the questions at hand, and some because we, as a culture, don’t see martial arts in our day to day lives.  We don’t have that many people who are trained in the practical aspects of beating people up, and the ways we use to commit organised slaughter are neither widely practiced, nor the sort of thing which makes for decent entertainment.

Not that books and films don’t try (see the posts referred to above, or any war flick in the past 40 years which has gunpowder).

Digression (topical, I promise):  I sell knives for my pocket money (technically I sell cookware, in practical terms my interests, and expertise means 80 percent of my time at work is spent behind the knife counter).  There is a lot of nonsense about knives, and sharpening, and everything which touches on cutting tools.  Honest, I heard a guy the other day saying, “I like damascus blades because they are lighter than steel.   Knife makers don’t help in this regard.  One (well known, and highly regarded, knife maker used to have literature which said European swords weighed a ridiculous amount (IIRC it was 50 lbs, but my mind refuses to accept that, so that I sort of want to say 15).

The fact is, european swords, and japanese swords (when they were a primary weapon) both came in between 1.75-2.75 lbs (there are some exceptions, at the heavier end).

Physics limits what one can do.  As an example go get a hammer.  Hold it at arm’s length… for as long as you can.  Even an 18 oz. hammer is going to be work to do that with.  Make it 5 lbs. and it’s a lot of work.  Make it a sword.  Now imagine your opponent managed to fool you into missing; now you have to get it back to a guard position before you get clobbered.

(blend digression back into conversation)

Which brings me to the bit about stupid.  I’ve read (lots) about how heavy/awkward armor is.  I read that nights couldn’t mount without a derrick, that if they fell they were helpless without someone to pick them up.

Bullshit.

Assume that people aren’t (at root) stupid.  Who, in their right mind, is going to spend a lifetime training to use a weapon system which is designed so as to make them slow, and vulnerable?

Pop quiz, how much did a Roman legionnaire’s kit weigh?  What about a soldier at Waterloo?  How about Verdun?  What about guys landing on on the beaches on D-Day?  How about Inchon?  Guys slogging their way to Dien Bien Phu?  On the road to Baghdad in 2003 (which was my war).  All of them were about 60 lbs.  Which is a bit less than the armor of someone in “harness”† was carrying.

Why is this number so consistent?  Because it’s about the maximum someone can haul around, and still be anything like rapid in movement.  The heaviest I’ve ever been hauling, when we stepped off on a march, was 82 lbs of gear (don’t look at me, I didn’t make the packing list). With all that I was able to keep pace (about 2.5 miles an hour), and do all the things needed (flop to the ground, get up, run a couple dozen meters (crossing danger areas), take a knee (to scan the area/establish a hasty perimeter) etc.  At  the end of the hump (about eight miles), I was tired, but not worn out to the point of being combat ineffective.

So why do we think people couldn’t make adequate armor, which also let them move about?  Because we stopped using it. When it moved from a tool/weapon of battle, to a mark of status; and armor became a specialised sort of equipment; of minor utility (think cuirasses on lancers) because the hand weapons which could pierce it had pretty much disappeared from the battlefield; then the sword came to be the weapon of both offense and defense.

But the offense (understandably) became point focused, because it doesn’t take much in the way of protection to keep a sword’s edge from cutting you‡; the shift was pretty much complete by the early 17th century, because even if the edge wasn’t effective, the point would go right through. Because people no longer wore armor it was seen as ungainly.  Hell, it is ungainly if one is not practised in it’s use.  I used to work renaissance faires. I spent a few years donning a chain hauberk every morning.  I spent the entire day in it.  I walked, ran, climbed trees, did the occasional 270º flip in it (dramatic pratfalls go over well).

I also did swordplay in it.  No we weren’t going full-tilt, but we were using live steel.  I’ve been thwacked.  I got bruised. If you want to see what happens when someone gets hit while wearing plate:

Watch the first 42 seconds of this this piece of film on 15th century armored combat (we’ll come back to other parts later).  Did you see how little the guy who got thwacked seemed to notice?  (If you’ve not hit the videos in the third footnote, go do that now. If you watch it front to back it’s about ten minutes, but I’ve marked out the important bits, each of which is 10-20 seconds).  One of the other things to notice in that clip is how both of them were holding weapons with solid points, and the armor was specialised in ways to defeat points (smooth curves, and lipped edges).  These are things which we don’t see in depictions of armored combat.  The SCA (for all it’s good points) doesn’t really understand armored combat.  They are of the “hack and bash” school of thoughtˆ (in this they are not alone: Viking re-enactors do that, as to the people in the Armored Combat League (an international group which does SCA sorts of fighting with dead steel weapons: I do like the woman on the Spanish team; more than holds her own, but I digress)

In different ways both groups buy into the idea that swords go through armor.  The ACL also buys into the idea that a knight who fell down was hors de combat, since they are “live” until they fall down.  We know swords didn’t do that.  We know because people played at tournaments for fun.  We also know that deep cuts, esp. ones which introduced foreign matte into the wound were (as often as not) fatal, and often crippling.  Since knights weren’t dropping like flies after every tournament…

So how mobile were men in armor?  If we look at paintings, we get the idea they were pretty capable.  If we look at “books of defense” we see lots of energetic movement being taught.  I’m gonna go out on a (pretty strong) limb here and guess the techniques in the books weren’t that far removed from those being done when wearing armor, even though the pictures are usually not of armored men. 1:  It’s harder to learn two completely different techniques, 2: what books showing techniques in armor are similar styles, 3: when people try those techniques in armor, they can do them.

More examples, from another source: Fighting in harness.  If you practice Judo, or Aikido you might have a sense of deja-vu starting around 1:55.  If we look at the work required to do good stage combat, where the actors aren’t in armor, but the swords can still injure; but the fight must look realistic, we see that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish: Reclaiming the Blade shows the same sorts of techniques in the harness fighting segment, being done by people in street clothes; as compared to doing things in harness. Note the level of physicality, esp. the amount of up/down movement.  Also note the actual weapon for killing the armored opponent is a triangular spike.

If we slip a bit earlier in the video we see just how agile one can be in plate armor.

Narrative (visual, and literary) tends to lose that level of ease.  We forget that people aren’t dumb, and that if someone were that clumsy, someone would have found a way to exploit it.

We also get confused by the vast power differential which skill in swordplay (even absent armor) gave a competent fighter.  Those swords all had points.  If we accept the idea that they were not just slashing/poking weapons, and that there were systems of use which made them weapons of leverage, then the peasant with a billhook is at a massive disadvantage against a single person who knows what he is doing.  In a melée that billhook could be used to pull someone to the ground (which is the purpose of so many of the twisty/spiky bits on halberds and other polearms of the day), where the confusion of being swarmed (those helmets had limited visibility, better than you might think, but a far cry from a wide field of view) would negate those advantages.  Make the peasant the sole focus of someone who is used to killing people, and give him a sword capable of the sort of smashing and cutting in the videos in the footnotes, and it would take a group of brave (to the point of foolhardy) people, willing to die, to deal with a marauding soldier.  Make a a group and nothing short of other soldiers is going to keep them from plundering the town (which is what made the 30 Years War so devastating, esp. to the Germanies, where so much of the contention was taking place).

Guns put all that to bed.  Swords, in short order, became specialist weapons; primarily for cavalry; where the problems of smoothbore innaccuracy, and the difficulties of reloading muzzle-loading weapons, meant that after a few rounds, the cavalry were either useless, vulnerable, or relegate to sword or lance (though we do get the pleasant, and peaceful, diversion of the carousel from the name for the (usually pointless) drill of firing while riding a circle.  It fell out of favor (in short order) because pistol and carbines were weak, and inaccurate: if the opposing horse put their spurs in and charged the group performing the caracole was usually routed, as they were quickly disordered.

Swordplay from horseback, however, is different to swordplay on foot.  By the end of the 16th century the idea of mobility in armor was gone, swords were lighter, and the sense that the larger swords of the previous era was to bash through armor seemed reasonable.

I suppose I ought next to deal with the idea of generalship in non-gunpowder armies, which, apart from logistics; motivation, was largely about being able to analyze terrain.

 

*I put it in scare quotes because what we tend to refer to as martial arts are forms of close combat, doe hand to hand; they fail to encompass most weapon arts (which includes distance weapons like bows and firearms), and don’t encompass questions of fieldcraft, which (as a soldier) I can say is both martial, and can be a game changer in a group on group fight).

§ I say that as someone who has been in my share of actual fights, as well as trained in a few martial arts (which includes a lot of weapons)

†Harness is the 15th century word (in English) for a suit of plate armor, it’s whence we get the term, “died in harness”.

‡This video is of people using late 15th century longswords to cut.  They are attacking “tamashigiri” which are tatami reeds, wrapped around a 1″ piece of bamboo.  When soaked in water they are supposed to behave as human limbs would when cut. Some interesting things at these points: at the 53 second mark we see an unsupported piece being split.  At  7:26 there is a  demonstration of “short” cuts (i.e. cuts without time to wind up). At 9:38 we see a demonstration of what happens to a pinned roll of tatami when covered with linen, in particular take a look at the effects from 10:11-10:23.

ˆIt’s not that SCA heavy weapons fighters aren’t good at what they do; they are, and I’d not like to be facing one in the lists, but their weapons aren’t swords/axes/maces, and they do things with them which aren’t doable with those weapons.  Which leads to a fighting style which, while interesting (and more subtle than most observers understand) doesn’t reflect the reality of how the weapons they are representing were actually used, nor what they are really capable of doing. Which in turn affects both how the make their armor, and what they do in it; which in turn affects how people who see them understand what armor is, does, and is capable of doing.


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The holidays are coming ’round

Which means some of you might be thinking of getting gifts for people. If the people you know happen to like knitting, crochet, or weaving, I can help you out.

Because I will make yarn to order. For a basic yarn (two-ply, semi-woolen), in weights from light to “super chunky), I figure twice the fiber weight is a reasonable exchange.  It’s not so little that I feel I am underselling the market (or my time), nor yet so dear it’s too expensive to consider (roving goes for between $2.50 and $50.00 US an oz, depending on type).

For more complex yarns (e.g. cables,) or more difficult materials (silk, camel hair, alpaca silk) I will probably ask for a bit more than double; because that takes more time/effort, attention.

I mention this now, because it takes a bit of time to get the yarn made (assuming I knuckle down and waste not a minute) a 4. oz skein is two-four hours of spinning singles, a day of rest on the bobbins; and then another hour or so of plying.  Then it’s overnight to set the twist.  Counting in the time for fiber to get to me, and then yarn to get to the recipient, this is the time to start thinking about it, esp. as it’s a first come, first served proposition.

I will also have some skeins available later (right now I have about half a dozen), which will be available for cash.


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Keeping the faith

We’ve been in England a bit more than a week now. In some regards it’s as any other such trip, one is both a bit overwhelmed, at the same time has the sense that one is seeing nothing.

We managed to short circuit some of that by going to Sidmouth Folk Week. It’s not that we felt we saw all of that (or Sidmouth), because the schedule was (as with any good convention) too packed in to take in half of what looked interesting, but rather that it felt one was taking part in a greater activity; as part of a community. It may have been a community of happenstance, but the shared interest meant I (at least) felt connected to some greater whole, which diminished the sense that I ought to be going great guns to “get it all in”.

Sidmouth was the fruit of pent up desire, and collaboration. We had been planning to attend LonCon, and then ShamrocKon. Mme. Pecunium has long wanted to go to Croperdy, so we figured we’d tack a bit onto the front, and make it a proper honeymoon (by adding a couple of days in Brighton to visit family).

We looked into getting a canal boat (shades of Wind in the Willows, which I still adore, and re-read); cost was prohibitive, esp. when the punitive nature of missing one’s time (by even the least margin) was factored in. So we looked into getting tentage, etc.

Which was when I asked the question, “Is Oysterband playing?”. Various searches revealed they 1: weren’t playing Croperdy, 2: but were playing Sidmouth. 3 Sidmouth was much closer to Brighton, and suited the rest of the planned trip a little better (giving us more time in Brighton, without losing any in London). So we hired a campervan, looked into the bands playing the various shows, packed our bags and headed out.

Not to go all fanboy squee… but I’ve wanted to see Oysterband since very shortly after I first heard them. I have eclectic tastes in music. Folk/Trad/Jazz/Rock/Some Pop/Filk/Symphonic. I love to sing (and have been taking lessons to improve my ear, so as to improve my confidence), used to be tolerably decent on the cello, have been getting decent on pennywhistle. I worked renaissance faires for about 20 years.

They fit into all of that; and have some solidly done political messages in their songs: it helps I seem to agree with their general politics, but a lot of the message in them is “be good to each other” and I can get behind that.

Sidmouth is more than a concert festival. Yeah, there are shows, and ceilidhs, and seisùns, but there are workshops, and parades, and it’s all in the town, so there are shops, and pubs, and the beach to walk on, and everywhere there are people with a shared interest; people are busking, or striking up random conversations about random things; comfortable in the sense that, even though strangers there is something in common.

The town joins in. The Bedford Hotel has a sign in the window, “musicians welcome” and every time I passed by, there was a different sort of thing happening in the bar. Roly’s Fudge had a couple doing dancing dolls, and I saw a sign in the window, “come in and sing a song/play a tune” and we’ll give you some fudge”.

With 60 years of history, it seems the village has taken the festival to heart.

So Weds. Evening we got ourselves to the show. It was all that, and a bag of chips. Music is magical. It’s powerful. It has the ability to be transcendent. This was all of that. It was worth all the hassle of driving a campervan on English roads (with the shiftbox on the left, but built for being on the right, and an underpowered engine. I missed more shifts in three days/400 miles then I’ve missed in years, almost all of them because 3rd was in a wretched place).

After the show I saw a tweet, from the band, asking us to come by the merchandising table, because they wanted to meet us. I’d been jazzed about the trip, and talking it up (it’s my first honeymoon, my first trip to England, my first Oysterband concert… I was perhaps a bit full of squeeful anticipation).

It being what it was, they got called away before we could get there. They were too busy the next night at the ceilidh, which was great. They started as a ceilidh band, and one can see why.
The next day (show three, in three days) was more intimate. It was JJ, and Ian, and Alan, and they told stories, and sang songs, and answered questions. JJ said, at one point, they were nervous when they wrote, “The Oxford Girl” because they were worried they weren’t doing justice to the tradition.

I found this interesting because, at some point in the past few years (I think when The Oxford Girl and Other Stories) came out, I got curious… the song has the feel of being connected to a real event. So I dug about and what comes up, from such a search is a lot of murder ballads, and as the band says… none of them is from the POV of the victim (which is in part because the parent form of those ballads is the broadsheets published as, “gallows confessions”).

So they wrote one. It’s, to me, an iconic tune. I think it was the song a girlfriend used to introduce me to the band; like a springboard it led to me diving in, and going deep.

The thing is tradition is a living thing.* Like language it dies if people don’t play with it. I play pennywhistle (to some level of moderate skill). I have little tutelage. I learned what I have from books, and tunes I knew, and my own ear as I played. And I was (until fairly recently) terrified to play in public.

I live in the states. “Trad” music here is somewhat ossified. One has the sense that one needs to have the tunes note perfect and spot on, or one can’t do them justice. One listens to groups like Battlefield Band, or The Chieftains, or The Oysterband, and thinks, “I’m not up to that”. It means the music is a bit less than it might be.

I didn’t know that before Sidmouth. I did know that I was going to be in Ireland, and I was going to sit in on a seisùn. So I had to get over my fear. I’d gotten over some of it at filk conventions. I’d jam on tunes I know (Lynyrd Skynyrd is KICK-ASS for playing pennywhistle to. Just sayin’). But that’s adding an instrument which isn’t endemic, even intrinsic to the tradition. It’s not one the players are going to have expectations of. So I went to a local Tues. night seisùn at Dempsey’s. Just tried to find the shape of the music, and run with it.

It works. It’s not perfect. I can’t lead a tune that way, but it works.

Skip to Sidmouth. I saw a set of workshops on, “learning by ear”. So I went. We learned an air: Sùilean Dubh. No variations (and a bit simpler than the opening to that song). We also worked on picking up a note, and how to move the song to where it goes from there. Interesting to me was that we got the C phrase (the song has the pattern of A/B/A/C/A/B:coda) well before we played it. We did an exercise before we SANG it. And we could sing it. We knew the tune, even though it was new to us. The trick is translation. So we played it out… and some of us weren’t quite there. And it was good. The rough spots tended to be in notes which made chords.

The thing I was doing, and feeling nervous, even guilty about was imbibing the tradition. Making the language of the music a language I can speak. Yeah, I want to learn set pieces, it the same way I learned to make hollandaise, or to recite, “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries”. I want to learn them so the grammar, the taste, essence of the music is there, ready to my fingers.

So that I don’t need to know every song being played to join in. So I can take what was old (and perhaps moribund) and give it, not a new life, but an ongoing one.

It’s why (to come back to the band) the show on Weds was so good. The recordings are great. Seeing them on feed from festivals is grand. Being in the room, where the sound is palpable, and the other members of the audience are there: vibrant, alive, participating is to take part in the tradition. It can’t die, not if we keep playing with it. Not if we take the old, and bend it to the present. Not making it new again; it will never be new again, but keeping it from stagnating into a relic from the past.

Oh yeah… after the third show, there was more than enough time to have a longish chat with the band, their partners, some of the crew. A pleasant capstone to a wonderful week, hospitable, charming, everything one should like to think them to be, from the way the music makes one feel.

I’d do it all again.

*and they nailed it. When I was trying to see if this was a murder ballad about a contemporary crime, one of the hits which was pulled up was this one, about “The Knoxville Girl” and how the ballad of, “The Bloody Miller” managed to cross the ocean to the Scots-Irish in the US, and got applied, using stock imagery to move it over, both in locale, and mores, to the American sensibility.  The linked article has some interesting comments on what the invention of the phonograph, and the way the 78s turned things into “the right way” and all the rest.

The subhead for this blog is taken from a song they wrote, based on a quotation of Alisdair Gray, which he attributes to Canadian writer Dennis Lee. In the best tradition we borrow from each other, and (sort of) file the serial numbers off.


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When the shit hits the fan

I am a prepper’s wet dream.

I’m male. I’m a vet (and a combat vet). I was in Intelligence (and better yet Interrogation, with time spent instructing). I know how to make gunpowder, and turn that into grenades, bombs and rockets.

I’ve studied martial arts. I know how to use bladed weapons. I can ride a horse, and a motorcycle. I know how to make minor mechanical repairs. I’ve studied fortification. I can use swords, pikes, axes, knives, bows, crossbows and firearms. I’ve made cannon.

All of which makes their eyes glaze over as their breath gets short. They see me as some massive asset in the bloodbath they expect to come when The Shit Hits The Fan.

And they are wrong. Not only is that not the likely scenario, even if it were I’m not on their side. I’ve studied history. All those times of death and destruction from one end of, “the world” to the other… were not because society fell apart. Nope, the death and destruction were why society fell apart. The plague comes, people hunker down and try to ride it out (or they move to cities. France didn’t recover the population she had in 1300 until 1900, but the distribution of population changed, a lot).

Preppers don’t get that. Even the ones I’ve interacted with who seemed to get it (that more than just gun and guts are required), still fail to see how things work. I was on a couple of panels with John Ringo a few years ago. Now John seems a tolerably decent fellow, but in the course of a couple of hours of discussion I realised he’d picked up some of the same blinkered ideas that so many End of the World sorts have; mainly that the end will be sudden, and then it’s warlord city.

So when the conversation got to farming, he was dismissive of pretty much everyone; until I told him I’d run a small farm (and I do mean small about ½ an acre). That said, with a bit of work, and some knowledge of what was required, that’s enough to add a fair bit of food to the table for a family of six (which is what I was doing with it).

Some chickens, some attention to the compost and putting in a balance set of crops (such as with the milpa systems in Meso-America) can get a lot of food out of a moderate amount of land. It’s not that tricky to set up, and a small investment in practice (a working vegetable garden is often enough to see what’s needed), and some books are all one needs (that, and seeds).

Want to have fun with a prepper… ask them where they intend to get socks. Most clothes are pretty durable, so it will be a couple of years before the supply of pants, shirts, coats and hats run out. But socks, socks get a lot of wear, and (as one who spent a lot of time in the Army) if they don’t get washed frequently your feet rot. Also, if they don’t get changed/washed regularly, they wear out. I have a lot of socks, and I change them. A four day weekend means I pack six pair (yeah, I might obsess a bit about socks).

That’s where my predilection for books, and futzing, comes in. I’ve done a lot of crafty stuff. I was a machinist for several years. I can run a lathe, or a mill. I understand the basics of using brakes. I’ve done a bit of forging. I make yarn. In theory I can weave.

This is where the preppers fall apart. They think of marauders. They contemplate a world of scavengers, living off the plunder of those fools who didn’t prepare. They imagine Mad Max, and envision the wasteland of the 30 Years War. They forget it was marauding soldiers who made that wasteland.

They don’t know how to make things, and they don’t know how to run things. I’ve been fortunate. The choices I made in my life mean I’ve never been rich. I have (through good fortune, and the help of my friend and my partners) been able to live a life which allowed me to indulge in hobbies which are modern luxuries, but used to be essential skills.

Take my spinning. I have a wheel at home. It cost, all in, about a grand. I paid for about half of it, and my partners kicked in the rest (as an early holiday present). I spin when we watch television or when I need to take a break and compose my thoughts for some piece of writing. I use it as therapy when I see something ungodly stupid on the internet, and as a way to unwind at the end of the day (the moreso when the winter comes and I can’t garden). It is, for me, an interstitial pleasure.

For much of “civilisation” it was an interstitial need. Women did (and do, if you look at the Andes today, as well as the highlands of Afghanistan, parts of India, etc.) spin when they had, “nothing else to do” (women, largely, did the spinning, while men did the weaving). I’ve got a project on spindles right now. I have about an oz. of Merino/silk spun up. I think I might be able to get to an oz. and a half before the total weight is too much to keep working.

That oz. is about 450 yards of fine yarn. To make sock-yarn (you thought I’d forgotten the socks), needs three plies. It happens I intend to spin three singles (ea. of which becomes one ply), and then make some sockweight yarn. For the other singles I have alpaca/silk (80/20) and pure merino. Socks last longer when you have cellulose, like tencel, or bamboo, or silk in them, which is part of why I’m adding to this yarn; but mostly because the fibers I had were blended, and I thought they would be pretty together.

I do most of my spindle spinning (up to about .9 oz. before the spindle start to be too heavy to manage when the train slews) while I’m on the subway, so it really is interstitial. I’m making yarn when I don’t really have a task at hand. I could, read (or play games on my phone, but I do this (and it ties me into the work of women going back some 10,000 years, maybe more). I will probably sell this yarn, so I can afford to buy more fiber to make more yarn (it’s sort of Ourborosian).

So, to get 450 yards of sock yarn, I need to spin about 1,500 yds. of singles (because twisting them up to get the final three-ply will reduce some of the total yardage, which varies based on how tightly the yarn is spun). I’ve spun about ½ oz. of the second spindle in the past five days of commuting, but it’s the sort of thing preppers don’t account for.

They see cans, not chickens (to quote @civilwarbore), and don’t think about the nature of the lifestyle they imagine. Yes, one can be a marauder, if there is a stable society to pillage, but as with any predator, the prey can’t be depleted if they want to survive. Since the actual prey of Vikings, Mongols, Huns, etc. was the fruits of urban cultures, it behooved them to not destroy those cultures (which is why they tended to settle down, and set up shop… thus becoming potential targets for the next wave of marauders).

And they somehow think it’s impossible for people to co-operate. They ignore the aftermath of disaster. New York has a blackout… people come together. Post Sandy, when Lower Manhattan was dark… restaurants were running on cash, or tab. There wasn’t any light, but the gas worked. They didn’t have refrigeration, but they could get deliveries. I stopped into a liquor store, and they offered me lunch. The vast majority of people are, at root decent. Not saints, maybe not even nice, but decent.

So, when I said, in one of those panels, that while I didn’t have experience in lots of things (e.g. I’ve never tanned leather), but you should see my library, John Ringo laughed, and said that wasn’t going to be good for much. Perhaps, for him, it wouldn’t, perhaps he’s not good at research (one of his books says black powder has more energy than smokeless), but for me, they would be.

In part because I trust that other people will pitch in, that we can divide the labor, and find materials to let us make mistakes. Some things (like brewing, and pickling, and salting), I’ve already practiced. But when the “Next Dark Age” comes, it will, as with Rome (both of them) probably be more a gradual loss of the trappings of easier living than some cataclysmic catastrophe.  I know how to do more than I can do (run a herd of cattle, tend sheep, grow grapes, grow cereals, thresh grain, harvest corn, make pots, build ovens, dry lumber, felt wool, make a yurt; or a tipi, build a weir, build a dam, make a catapult (or a trebuchet), fashion bows, entrench a town, set an ambush, cook, knit, plough, sharpen, play pennywhistle, play baseball, football, soccer, skittles, turn wood, make glue, make wine, beer, and vinegar, press olive oil, prune fruit trees, &c. &c. &c.), and I can teach.

And for that, I am as prepared as I can be. Preppers aren’t. Because people who can do violence (and well) are easy to come by (e.g. me). People who can do the rest of it are more common than people think. People who can do both aren’t thin on the ground. And people who value comity will band together, where those who are good at violence will (in all probability) leave the plough as needed, to put paid to those who plan to live off the sweat of other’s labors.

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