Better than salt money

Work like you were living in the early days of a better nation

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I am as a stranger in a strange land

I’ve been in Jerusalem for about a week. It’s sort of like my trips to Germany… I don’t speak the language (and unlike Germany I can’t really decipher the signage; except that most f them here are tri-lingual, so I can * but not with any rapidity). As with Germany I don’t mark as being foreign (I suspect the beard I’ve grown since Sept. last, married to my hat-wearing habits, has something to do with this. {photo}), so I get a lot of Hebrew tossed at me when I do things like go for my morning coffee. This means I don’t feel out of place when walking about (which I sort of did when in Korea), but am at a moderate disadvantage when dealing with random interactions (which was not true in trips to Ukraine).
Jerusalem. Setting aside any religious sentiment I might have, it’s a city pregnant with meaning.  I was reared in the USA. I am a grandchild of Europe and a student of history. That, in itself will color one’s views. When Reagan said the US was a City on a Hill, he was making reference to Jerusalem. When people use the metaphor of “Crusade” it refers to Jerusalem. For a good three thousand years the ability to control trade has meant people fought for control of the city on these hills.

That’s on top of the religious significance three different groups attached to it. Which significance led to Rome’s most troubled province, and the revolt it had the hardest time suppressing **. Jerusalem was seen as the center of the world for a large part of the history which shapes the culture Westerners grow up in.

The same way being a Native English Speaker makes London something of a mental homeland, so too does being reared with a European perspective give a strange sense of place to Jerusalem.

But it’s more than that. We are here to visit family. My wife’s cousin has a son who is turning thirteen. We are here for his Bar Mitzvah.  So Israel, which is more than just Jerusalem is place to which I have a direct connection. A connection to which my christian sensibilities also disconnects, in more than a few ways.

But I am also, in many ways, a Californian. How does that relate?  The landscape, and the weather, are like unto  that of “home” (where home is that place one feels innately at ease, just by virtue of being present).  We went to Qumran, and thence to Masada. It was a day of rarity. Neither of our guides had ever been to the Dead Sea on a day of rain.  In Jerusalem the rain came down in buckets. In the wild hills above the sea there we had some rain and the smell of water on dusty rocks. Setting aside my views of the interpretations of the totality of the Dead Sea Scrolls *** I could see myself living a moderately hermetic life in the area. The climate, the smell, the appearance are all of piece to the places in Joshua Tree where I was wont to retire to collect my thoughts, when I was living in South-ish California. The hill about Judea, are as those I lived in San Luis Obispo, and wandered when I lived in the San Gabriel, and San Fernando Valleys.  Israel looks like home.

The day before we were in the Old City; though we didn’t go to the Christian Quarter (and I am mixed on visiting it, as I was already seeing pilgrims heading into Israel last week, and next week is Holy Week; which means crowds, married to the decided risk of encountering the sort of Fundamentalist American Christians I don’t enjoy being around when they are home. I don’t know how tolerant I can be of them here ****). But we went to the area of the Hulda Gate, and wandered the layered ruins, running a mixed gamut from the Umayyids, to the Second Temple and the Byzantines, and the Outre Mer and some First Temple. My spiritual landscape piled in heaps; with bits of order in the rubble.

Standing on the far edge of the Valley of the Cross, looking at the geography all the military history I’ve read: from the accounts in Kings, and Numbers, to Josephus,  and then the Crusades, and Lawrence, and Allenby and the War of Independence; et sequelae… all of it made plain by the way the hills, and walls, control the valleys. It’s a nexus; all trade passing here is controllable. That, married to religion, has made this small patch of dirt a cockpit for not less than 3,000 years.

Which brings us back to Masada, not the Masada of landscape
It’s a lot to digest.



*which is, like a Rosetta Stone, helping me acquire the skills to decipher the signs
** which is a large, if not the greatest, reason for the anti-semitism in the Gospels. Rome was REALLY pisssed at Judea. They expelled all the Jews from the province, and renamed it Palestinia. They tore out all the trees, and gave it over to grazing, changing the landscape, creating desert and altering the climate. They were doing this while the Ur-text of the Gospels were being written. Sympathetic treatments of Jews weren’t going to be any help in converting Romans to Christianity, but I digress.

*** I don’t think they are all the work of the sect in Qumran.  I think de Vaux engaged in a lot of overreach as he ascribed all the discovred texts to Qumran, and tried to shoehorn some very divergent ideas into a coherent whole. I think either they were texts brought with candidates to the group, and so discarded as not relevant (with the option to be reclaimed if they decided the community was not for them), or they were the valuable objects of people who were fleeing the chaos further North as rebellion approached, then raged.

**** I already had to bite my tongue at Katros’ House where someone tried to engage me in the horrors of American Divisions; given that they were giving off a strong Fundamentalist vibe.

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The Union Army put paid to the Confederacy 150 years ago today. From here, 150 years removed from the trials of civil war it looks as if they had no chance. At the time it was touch and go. Lee knew this was probably his last chance to throw the dice with any chance of forcing a decision.

The war was never going to be won for The South, on the field of battle. The battles were all about public opinion. Not, though the history books told me so in high school, the public opinion of Great Britain and France, but rather the public opinion of the Union. Because the nation facing off against Lee, and the Army of Virginia (a regional dept, not actual the army of the State of Virginia), and working it’s way down the Mississippi (US Grant was wrapping up the Siege of Vicksburg while George Meade was, a bit reluctantly, fighting the most important battle of the war) was most decidedly a Union divided.

Any number of interests were unhappy about the war. It was expensive (when all was said and done it cost about 6.5Bn USD: in modern terms, about 75 Trillion dollars). It was also destroying the specific economy of the North. Slavery drove the economy of the nation, North and South. The South had cheap cotton (because they sweated it out of blacks in servitude: depending on where in the South one lived between 17-40 percent of the money earned was stolen from the labor of slaves [Virginia, for which Lee fought was at the bottom of that list; but it also included what is now W. Virginia, so it’s possible the portion which seceded was significantly higher]). If ending it, and accepting a slave-owning South (and that’s what the South was fighting for, a slave-owning society, to the end of time. They rebelled because Lincoln’s Republicans were going to prohibit the expansion of slavery) would bring back the good times when King Cotton ruled, then they were happy to do it.

There was also a lot of endemic racism; by 1863 the war had cost a lot of lives, and the shift to it being about freeing slaves was well under way, which wasn’t as palatable.

So Lee had the chance to gain a victory (as an election was coming; where McClellan, seen as a hero (and possessed of large factions in the Army of the Potomac) was going to be running against him. If there was a large victory for the Confederates, then Lincoln might be forced to sue for peace. If he didn’t the odds were good he’d be turned out of office and McClellan (who would rather have had no war in the first place) would be in office and something could be negotiated.

So Lee sent his army north, and told Jeb Stuart to go and harass the enemy. Which he did. He may not have been much of an actual cavalry general (the US didn’t have anything but light cavalry, which had some interesting effects on the battlefield, not the least of which making the slaughters a bit more awful, because broken units were hard to chase from the field, and so they could reform and come back to the line) but he loved to raid. His troops went on a spree, sending as many blacks South (into slavery) as they could lay their hands on. He was a bit late getting back to Lee (but no so late, nor so distressing in his absence as Lee’s later hagiographers would have you believe), which was most troublesome in that his men were exhausted from eight days hard riding, and raiding.

With the screening/recon/raiding of Stuart underway he slipped into the Union. Consternation ensued. His intent was to engage The Army of the Potomac. Given what transpired in the tail end of June, when he began the campaign things seemed to be going his way. The command of the Army of the Potomac was taken from Joe Hooker (whom Lincoln was trying to pressure to resign the command) and given to George Meade, who didn’t want it (no one much wanted it, except McClellan, who wasn’t going to have it returned to him). The troops didn’t like Meade. Meade wasn’t all that resolute in the best of times, and this was far from the best of times. An army in the field was invading the United States, and his forces were spread across Hell’s Half Acre.

If Lee could engage the Union of the Potomac piecemeal, and defeat it in detail he could move on DC, and threaten the capital (it’s not likely he could have penetrated the defensive works [which McClellan had designed; you can still find remnants here and there. I walked to one near Walter Reed when I was a patient there).

A major defeat, and that threat against Washington (or Baltimore, or PhiladelphiaL both of which were panicking) would probably have brought about an armistice, of some sort (though the fall of Vicksburg, and Grant’s bulldog bellicosity, might have affected that). The North couldn’t lose, so long as it had the will to fight.

Gettysburg (more than Vicksburg) stiffened the resolve (and Lincoln exploited the battle to the utmost with the Gettysburg Address), and self-created the, “high water mark of the Confederacy”.

The battle itself is too complicated to go into in detail, from the myths about Pickett and Chamberlain. The latter’s defense of Little Round Top was desperate, and well managed, and important, but it wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination the “lynchpin” of the battle, as some might have you believe (I had to give a presentation on that battle in BNCOC [an army course for Staff NCOs], it was well fought, and important, but minor). The former’s assault on Cemetery Hill was dramatic, but the issue had been decided by the time his troops left cover.

In truth the battle was probably won in the middle of the second day; and it was touch and go; because Sickles had overextended his line. Lee was, wisely; given the logistical trials he was under, and the nature of the Union army, engaging in an “echelon attack” and on both the first and second days came close to pulling it off. Sickles blunder was the closest he came to a decisive breakthrough (I think, had he won the first days engagement, Meade would have withdrawn, and the incomplete victory would have required the campaign to continue, which wasn’t in Lee’s interest).

Sickles (a figure of mythic proportions; none of them good) had created an exposed salient, and Lee sent Longstreet’s Corps against it. Sickles’ Corps was both understrength (he was short his third division), and overextended, with a large gap (about 600 yards) on his right flank. He was asking 10,000 men to defend a front of 1 ½ miles. Had Longstreet’s divisions been less tired, and the supporting troops on Sickles’ left less on top of things, and Hancock pouring his division into the breach it wouldn’t have mattered that Chamberlain held Little Round Top because the Union forces would have been split, and the odds of them being able to stand were slim.

But they didn’t, and Lee didn’t change his plan, and the next day tried again, and failed again.

And the Confederacy was doomed.


A title escapes me

I should be sleeping right now. I can’t. The world is with me too much, late and soon. Then again, I don’t sleep as well as I did ten years ago. That’s part of why I can’t sleep. It’s not that I suffer from bad dreams. I don’t. When I am haunted (and I’m not often haunted) the haunting happens in my waking moments.

I’m a combat vet. I don’t, “look” like one. I’m quiet. I have long hair. I laugh at things, tell jokes, stop and look at sunsets, and babies and birds and am generally easy going. I also get nervous on days when the wind is warm and dry. I dislike being in cars with open windows. I scan the overpasses when moving down the highway.  When I walk my gaze caresses the high skyline, and tries to look into dark windows.

War is like that. If you’ve been to one you know that’s not explicable. None of us comes back the same. Most of us come back mostly whole. There is a place, a part of us which isn’t as it was; it’s not empty, but it’s searching. It’s the residue of constant fear.

I wasn’t young when I went. I wasn’t young when I enlisted, and I’d been in for eight years when we deployed. I was probably as prepared for it as anyone can be. I’d been trained. I’d read books. I’d known WW2 Vets, and Korean War Vets. If he’d lived a little longer I’d’ve known my Grandfather well enough to say I knew a WW1 vet.  One of the guys I shipped out with, who worked with me when we were doing small unit HumInt, was on his third war.  He did all he could to prepare us.

It didn’t help. Nothing helps. War is a strange beast; it has its own sensibilities. Some of which I knew of, but didn’t know. Take WW2, “The Good War”. Fuck that. In “The Men of Company K” there is an explanation of the difference between, “take him down the road”, and “take him to the road”. The latter was used when there was no time/manpower to spare; the prisoners were killed.

Which is why Who Did You Rape in the War, Daddy? A Question for Veterans that Needs Answering offends me. I am sure my offense matters not a bit to the author. I, after all, am a combat vet.

War is obscene. I mean that in every sense of the word. Some veterans will tell you that you can’t know war if you haven’t served in one, if you haven’t seen combat. These are often the same guys who won’t tell you the truths that they know about war and who never think to blame themselves in any way for our collective ignorance.
The truth is, you actually can know a lot about war without fighting in one. It just isn’t the sort of knowledge that’s easy to come by.

I’ll repeat myself, if you haven’t been there, you don’t know. I’ve been reading military history since I was 12. I’ve been reading milfic (much of which is personal history/experience thinly dressed) since I was abut 14. I’ve read Fussell on the subject. I’ve read David Drake explaining how he came to write his milfic; and the demons he was exorcising. I was taught by combat vets: combat vets who had a personal interest in giving me as much understanding of my profession as was humanly possible. I served with combat vets (from Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, other parts of Central America). Guys I know set up Camps Delta and X-ray in Gitmo. People I worked with worked there.

I can tell you what it was like, and you still won’t know. Until you’ve seen the elephant it’s not real.

I can tell you from experience that if you read a few dozen of the best of them, you can get a fairly good idea about what that war was really like. Maybe not perfect knowledge, but a reasonable picture anyway. Or you can read several hundred of the middling-to-poor books and, if you pay special attention to the few real truths buried in all the run-of-the-mill war stories, you’ll still get some feeling for war American-style.

I can tell you, from experience, that’s rubbish.  None of that will make it clear why I can sit in a hot tub and listen to people shooting at each other in my neighborhood, with a perfectly calm mind, while I will hear a string of firecrackers and be facedown on the floor, scrabbling for cover; having left my chair so quickly I had abrasions on my thighs.  Those are just the obvious ways in which being there gives a different understanding than researching, even from doing oral histories.  Yes, he qualifies it with, “war, American style”, but that’s still talking about it from the outside.

If you read it carefully you can see it’s rubbish. It’s self-delusional. He is telling you that if you don’t know, you can still sift through the books and find, “the few real truths.” How? If you read a book (say one like Chris Mackey’s, “The Interrogators”) how are you going to spot the real truths? If you know Chris (and, disclosure, I do), and you read it what will you take away? How will those truths be different if you don’t know him?

What if you don’t know him, but you do know that the people who took over from him when he left committed war crimes; some of them when to jail, some of them went on to Abu Graib. Some were punished, some got off pretty much scot-free. What “truths” do you think you will glean from it then?

What if I wrote a book, and you found out I served, in Iraq, with some of those same war criminals? What pieces of my writing will you take away as truth? If you read Tim O Brien’s, “The Things They Carried” you will learn another truth… all war memoirs are fiction. We don’t remember clearly. The good, the bad, the ugly: they blur. War has its own, sick and twisted, morality (see above, “to the road/down the road,”, or the scene in Band of Brothers where the officer is reported to have given a bunch of prisoners cigarettes and then machine gunned them all. No one admits to knowing if it’s true, but no one thought it impossible: nor worth reporting).

So no, I’m not saying crimes, even atrocities, don’t happen. I’ll even grant that they aren’t uncommon. That doesn’t mean, however, they are common. It’s not uncommon for someone to drive in excess of 100 mph, but it’s not a commonplace either.

But Nick Turse thinks

Maybe it’s time to start asking questions of our veterans. Hard questions. They shouldn’t be the only ones with the knowledge of what goes on in armies and in war zones. They didn’t get to Vietnam (or Iraq or Afghanistan) on their own and they shouldn’t shoulder the blame or the truth alone and in silence. We all bear it. We all need to hear it. The sooner, the better.

I don’t think I can respond to this without sounding like an apologist: but he’s wrong. He’s wrong because he’s confused the idea something being uncommon somehow brings it close to commonplace. He wants to shoulder some part of the blame for what happens in the warzone… good on ‘im, because most of the fuckheads who sent us over there are shirking the entire idea and none of the cheerleaders who supported the lies, and suppressed those who dissented from the pack, have suffered one bit, but I digress; bitterly.

But his blithe implication that asking rude questions like, “who did you rape in the war daddy” is going to get at the truth… bullshit. He’s managed a Bob Woodwardish case of and told “truths” in a way which misleads. Did atrocities occur? Yes. If you don’t think so, you aren’t reading this.

Were there crimes and atrocities which didn’t make the news? Sure. Do Vets know about them? Some do. Is assuming that every vet was a baby killer, or a rapist, or a murderer going to bring them to light? No. Is offending those vets who weren’t complicit a way to help anyone, “shoulder the blame”? Not in the least.

I’ve spent a lot of the past ten years speaking out about things people think they know about. I get a lot of rude questions. I’ve set myself up for them. Even at that I get questions which gobsmack me. I’m doing, as best I can, the thing he says vets don’t do. I can also tell you I’m not completely candid; because if I was, people would look at me blankly.

Because it’s a foreign place, and those who haven’t travelled there see it; at best, as through a glass, darkly. I know what he’s trying to do, and I know why (he’s been staring into the abyss), but his solution isn’t going to work. Implementing it won’t help; it will (if my reaction is anything to go by) backfire.
Assuming every vet is war criminal, is an injustice. Arguing we need to do it so the population at large can share the guilt… ain’t gonna happen. If they won’t do it for launching a fucking war; they sure as shit aren’t gonna do it for the effects of that war. Which means all that would happen is scapegoating those who went.

Fuck that noise.