Document No. 1235a

Document No. 1235a
Classification: Top Secret
Subject: Report on Operation Nullification

Pursuant to the development of a viable instrument for travelling back through time and returning safely (Document no. 1234), and the subsequent approval of Operation Nullification (Document No. 1235), this report details the results of said operation.

The objective of Operation Nullification was to travel back to 1917 and assassinate Oberleutnant Heinrich Knebel, later known as Heinz Volker, the charismatic leader of the National People’s Party (Napi) beginning in 1934. Removal of this target was deemed to forestall the rise of the Napi Party, and thereby vitiate the events leading to World War II.

Result: Objective successfully completed.

Nero’s fiddle

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Ah, Nero, second only to Caligula, or perhaps, thanks to Hollywood, Commodus, among the Roman Emperors we love to hate.  Why, he fiddled while Rome burned.

Well, not really, since fiddles as such were a long way from being invented yet.  There was a rumor, though, perhaps started by Cassius Dio, certainly fueled by Seutonius, that when Rome caught fire and burned to the ground in 64CE, Nero climbed the Palatine Hill and “…sang the whole of the Sack of Ilion in his regular stage costume,” the aforementioned piece apparently being a long, theatrical declamation he had written (just for the occasion?).

What?  Regular stage costume?  Well, you have to understand the man.  Nero fancied himself a first class poet and playwright, a brilliant actor and dramatist, and, need I add, a superbly gifted athlete.  It was rumored that when he ordered his slave to kill him after he was driven from Rome by angry mobs and a smattering of generals, lacking the balls to do it himself, his dying words were “The world is losing a great genius!” or something to that effect.  He instituted regular festivals featuring contests of poetry, drama and music, which he himself inevitably entered, and just as inevitably won, since none of the judges fancied their chances if they declared for someone else.  This timorousness of judges extended to his athletic prowess as well.  He once entered the Quadriga,  a four horse chariot race, and the most prestigious of the races in the favorite athletic event in all of Rome, with a special chariot fitted with twelve, count ’em, twelve horses.  The judges conferred, and ruled that it was legal, having noted, I suppose, that twelve was a multiple of four, after all.  To be fair, he was leading into the turn-about (who would pass him?), but tipped over, surviving a horrible crash unscathed.  And victorious.  Those astute judges noted sagely that, well, he would have won, had he not tipped over, and awarded him the trophy.  In defense of the judges, it should be noted that more than one general lost his job, rank, and occasionally life, just for falling asleep during one of Nero’s poetry recitals.

So, the burning question (sigh) is, did or did not the man diddle, if not fiddle, while Rome burned?  It seems as though, if he did, he still had time to handle the situation honorably enough.  Tacitus wrote that he took in refugees from the fire at his own residence, and fed and clothed them, opening the substantial palace grounds to anyone in need.  So, if there was a fiddle, it was figurative, and much deeper, and here we get to the subject of who or what started the fire in the first place.

Fires in Rome were commonplace.  Just beyond the familiar temples and palaces of stone and brick, the city was a ramshackle jumble of rickety wooden structures.  Truthfully, even in the more substantial stone buildings, fire was a danger; remember, before electricity, heat and light were provided by fire.  The ubiquitous lamps used all over the city and beyond consisted of an open bowl filled with oil.  A wick was added, and the whole thing, when lit, provided ample opportunity for spillage and subsequent disaster.  Stone and brick were, all the same, filled with furniture, carpets, draperies – in short, fuel.  In the poorer quarters outside the central district, fires were so common and so dangerous that indoor cooking was forbidden.  More than one emperor capped his hallmark forum with a firewall against the slums next door.

Still, this particular fire had started suddenly, in an unusual place, and spread like, well, wildfire.  In the end, only a bit more than one fourth of the city escaped unscathed, with much of the central district destroyed completely.  And there’s the rub.

Nero had this area cleared, and built a fabulous new palace compound, the Domus Aurea, on the site.  It had a lake big enough to stage recreations of famous naval battles, and a statue of himself, as Sol Invictus, stood 30 meters (about 100 feet to us colonials) at the head of the grounds.  It was called the Colossus, and gave its name to the Coliseum that replaced his palace (a whole other story).  The name Domus Aurea refers to the centerpiece of this garden of splendor, the residence, with its dome covered with gold.  The dome was engineered to rotate, and the night sky was painted on the interior for the bemusement of dinner guests, who were sprayed with perfume and showered with petals on entrance.  True, other emperors before and after built lavish homes for themselves, but this particular effort sorely rankled, because Nero used public money to build it, on the grounds that it was essentially a city renovation project.

Truth to tell, there was precious little difference between public and private money where public officials were concerned, but each had its own pocket, and the populace cherished the fiction that they were separate.  Far from using public funds for their personal projects, high officials, and especially the emperor, were expected to spend their own money on public projects, as a show of magnanimity.  The lavish Domus Aurea  was a step too far, and it fueled rumors that Nero himself had set the fire, to rid himself of senate rivals, and clear the land.

To be fair, Nero had his own theory, and that was that Christians had set the fire in a sort of apocalyptic fervor.  The result was a very public campaign of persecution, leading, among other things, to the particularly venomous description of Rome in the Book of Revelations, generally supposed to have been written 30 years or so after the great fire, but could have been earlier. Well, to a lot of the Roman public, that seemed pretty likely, or at least plausible.  Nobody who wasn’t a Christian liked them very much.  They refused to honor the other gods of Rome, they hung around with slaves and other low-life, and they met in secret, where it was rumored that they partook of cannibalistic rituals.  If the fire wasn’t set by Christians, most people were content to let them get persecuted all the same.

Even some modern scholars believe that the idea of Christians starting the fire is not entirely out of the question.They got a lot of propaganda mileage out of the persecution, and laid the groundwork for expansion. Even so, it is the consensus now, as it was then, that it was either accidental, or set by Nero’s agents. But whether or not Nero was at fault, he certainly benefited from it, at least in the short term. He silenced most of his senatorial critics, and he got his magnificent residence in the middle of downtown Rome.

If there was a fiddle involved, that was it.

A man of his word

I’m sitting here in what could very well have been Southern Canada, but for a man of his word.

In 1778, the British controlled all of the Northwest Territory, comprising present day Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  Their primary seat of government was at Detroit, and their method of enforcement was through alliances with local Indian tribes, who felt squeezed out of their ancestral hunting grounds by encroaching American settlers; they easily dominated the French who had previously settled the area to ply the fur trade, but failed to win their hearts and minds, and thereby hangs this tale.

With the encouragement of the British at Detroit, the Indians were regularly raiding settlements in Kentucky, then part of Virginia.  They didn’t need much encouragement, at that, since this had comprised some of the richest hunting and fishing grounds they had known, increasingly being divided and fenced off by Euro-American farmers from the East.  Naturally, this didn’t sit well with these same settlers.

Just a reminder: North America was in the throes of the Revolutionary War at the time, so any excuse for belligerence was more than acceptable.

I suspect the rebels in the East would have been prepared to write off the Northwest Territory; their armies had all they could manage as it was.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, a young officer named George Rogers Clark persuaded Patrick Henry, the governor of Virginia, to back a secret plan: Clark would recruit and train a militia of Kentuckians, known locally as Long Knives for their swords and bayonets, and they would advance on Kaskaskia on the Mississippi, just South of St. Louis, and from there take the lightly held French towns of Cahokia and Vincennes, the latter being the venue for this tale of intrigue.

All went according to plan.  In spite of having been able to recruit a measly 150 men, Clark took his objectives easily, primarily because of the element of surprise, and the fact that the French inhabitants didn’t much care for the Brits anyway.  He returned to Kaskaskia, satisfied.

But, word gets around, doesn’t it, and soon made its way to British General Henry Hamilton, the governor of the territory, at Fort Detroit, and he led a large contingent of soldiers South to Vincennes, and retook it.  Clark, back at Kaskaskia, had no inkling of this, and was in fact busy recruiting for a march on Detroit, where he would have easily been picked off by Hamilton’s troops from the flanks.

Enter Giuseppe Maria Francesco Vigo, a Sardinian and sometime Spanish soldier who had set up shop in St. Louis as a fur trader.  Vigo was at Vincennes, by some accounts sent as a spy by Clark, and by others on his own account as a fur trader.  Vincennes, Indiana is a sleepy backwater on the Wabash River today, but in the 18th century had been a vital link between the French interests in the Great Lakes and their colony at New Orleans, so his presence there was plausible.

In any case, Hamilton smelt a rat and had Vigo arrested before he could return to St. Louis. This didn’t sit well with the local French population, however, who threatened to withhold vital supplies unless Vigo was released.  Hamilton made the best of it by letting Vigo leave Vincennes, but not before extracting a solemn vow: Vigo was not to whisper a word to the Americans at Kaskaskia about the fact that Hamilton controlled Vincennes, on his way back to St. Louis.

And the thing is, he was true to his word.  He went down the Wabash to the Ohio, West to the Mississippi, then North to St. Louis without a word.  After which, he backtracked to Kaskaskia and spilled the whole story to Clark.

The rest, as they say, is history: Clark’s daring winter passage to Vincennes, so unexpected by Hamilton that he had sent most of his troops home until Spring, and the final victory, concluding with Hamilton’s surrender.  The Northwest Territory was ceded to the Americans by the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War,  in 1783.

Thanks to a man who kept his word.  Otherwise, things might be a little different down here in Southern Illinois, eh?

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The man himself, himself.

Egypt’s lesson for America

The term of President Mohamed Mursi ended abruptly Wednesday, as the Egyptian army took control, arrested him, and declared his government over.  A coup, in plain words, toppling the country’s first democratically elected president from power.  We should be outraged.

Or should we?  Mursi’s missteps, succinctly recounted in this Reuters article, seemed to almost ensure his demise, but incompetence, even recalcitrance, alone doesn’t justify annulling a popular election.  What doomed his regime, and what, to me, provided reasonable cause for his removal, was his November 22 hijacking of the constitutional assembly process.  On that day, he assumed for himself emergency powers, by which any and all oversight of the assembly, previously packed with his Muslim Brotherhood compatriots, was crushed.  This included any discussion of the packing itself.

When the assembly predictably returned a constitution leaning heavily toward Islamist principles, the public rebelled, and took to the streets once again.  Mursi’s response: quell the demonstrations, force an early referendum, before the opposition had a chance to organize itself, and ram the new constitution through.  Every move after that was right and proper, according to the new constitution, but if the constitution itself is suspect, such legality is moot.

Mursi’s victory was on the slimmest of margins, and was largely the result of the disunity of the opposition.  As it was, he was forced into a runoff against Ahmed Shafik, who was arguably handicapped by having been Prime Minister under Hosni Mubarek.  Shafik still managed 48.3% of the vote.

This is the crux: having won by a small margin, Mursi proceeded to rule as if he had a crushing mandate, assuming emergency powers when conventional channels disfavored him, and thoroughly ignoring any of the concerns of the opposition, accusing them instead of subversion.  No compromise.

So, the burning question is, is democracy simple majoritarianism?  We hear a lot about majority rule with regard to democracy, but is that all there is to it?  In the United States, the constitution, specifically the Bill of Rights, declares otherwise.  The very concept of rights quite bluntly limits the power of the majority to enforce its will, and protects minorities from its ill will, right down to the individual.  I use the term “minority” here in its strict sense, not the political sense of identifiable interest group.

But on a subtler level, the implication is that the interests of such minorities must be taken into consideration by the leaders elected by the majority, even when swept into office by groundswell.  Still more, when the margin of majority is as thin as spring ice.

Which brings us to the infamous gridlock of American politics.  It is grounded on the idea that, in a democracy, the winner takes all, that it is unnecessary, even irresponsible, to compromise with the losers.

We seem to have a lot of Mursis in American politics these days.  Let’s take Egypt’s fate as an object lesson, and avoid that treacherous path.

Correspondence from the dawn of time

Archaeologists have uncovered a stone slab with what appears to be the earliest correspondence ever.  The hypothesis is that the slab was exchanged with each new entry.  Here is a transcript.

Not the slab, but stone like it.

Not the slab, but stone like it.

Hi

Why do you give me this?

No reason.  Just Hi.

What you want?

Nothing, just friend.  What wrong with that?

Here a small circle has been carved, with a curved line in the lower half, and two dots in the upper.

What this shit?

It’s like face, smiling.

OK, haha.

BTW, I have plenty hides, for you, cheap.

Here are just random chips, odd symbols, in a pattern suggesting anger.  There appears to be the figure of a man, decapitated.  The rest of the slab is blank.

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Photo credit: http://www.newsgd.com/travel/routeofthemonth/200606080058_60340.jpg

Draft dodging revisited

Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: Saving your own ass is a perfectly honorable reason to avoid military service, if you don’t see a compelling reason to go to war in the first place.

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And another thing:  those were crazy times, the 60s.

The beats, those semi-feral gnosticati whom we came to later venerate, were creatures of the WW II aftermath, in exactly the same way as the Lost Generation was of WW I.  An incomprehensibly brutal war had beaten the bejeezus out of the population at large, and those few sensitive and creative souls who could banded together in resistance to the Great Blanding that followed.  They were artists, primarily, painters, poets, musicians, above all uncynical and undisillusioned, still willing to bite on the bare hook, still enthralled by beauty and the ideal.  Do I surprise you?  That cynical, hip beatnik pose that’s so familiar was a disguise at most, at worst a caricature painted by a society that wanted nothing remotely experimental to happen for the foreseeable future.  The war and the depression it followed had been adventure enough, thanks.

But, for better or worse, the beats became famous, especially for naturally rebellious young folk, always feeling stifled, but particularly in that post-war treacle of the 1950s.  For them, Kerouac, Ginsburg, Ferlinghetti, and the rest represented not only freedom from accountability, but an expression of creativity completely unfettered by the constraints of the responsible, normal, world.  Never mind that Kerouac actually lived with (not to say on) his mother in Lowell between cross-country adventures, or that Ferlinghetti had served honorably in the Navy during the war.  Come to that, never mind that most of the people who so earnestly emulated them were safely enrolled in college.  It was a ramblin’ kinda thing by the early 1960s, a confusion of Woody Guthrie and William Burroughs, sort of a gay, jazzed up Alan Lomax thing, a place where Coltrane and Leadbelly were equally likely to be heard on the hi-fi in any given off-campus apartment.  And, thanks largely to sheer romance, it was all vaguely leftist.  Posters of Rosa Luxembourg, or someone equally suitably obscure, were everywhere.  People carried anarchist paperbacks in their hip pockets.  It never occurred to most to read the damn things.  Best of all, it was cozily small, an invitation-only subterranean elite.

I say this stuff as a member of that wannabe tribe, or, more accurately, as a wannabe member of it; my own background was far too odd for easy acceptance in what amounted to a splinter group of the middle class.  I was born a refugee, a natural intellectual, an ex-Catholic who grew up in a not-so-pretty working class neighborhood, in which the inhabitants would never have dreamed of calling themselves working class, or any other class for that matter.  In my neighborhood, graduation from reform school was as typical as graduation from high school, and of roughly equal status.  Almost nobody outside my immediate family went on to college.  Such was my enculturation; I didn’t have the savoir faire for acceptance as a middle class rebel.  Worse yet, as an exile from Latvia, I had no great affection for Marxist pipe dreams.  But enough disclosure.

In the midst of this happily angst-ridden fairyland, the war in Vietnam came gnawing like a small but determined troupe of mice in the pantry.  Begun by Eisenhower as a way to shore up Indochina after the expulsion of the French, it might have remained an obscure haven for covert operations, but for a series of circumstances, too complex to go into here, that led Lyndon Johnson to try to win it and get out quickly.  That meant escalation, and that meant that the draft, which during much of the late 1950s and early 1960s had been little more than a minor nuisance, became a jarring reality to the pleasant little community of rebellious savants, many of whom were in and out of college as if it were a game of musical chairs.  This was a real problem when it came to student draft deferments.  In those early days, if you lost your 2S status, you were next.  What to do?

Why, protest, of course.  At first, it was uncomfortably small groups carrying signs, in emulation of the Ban-the-Bomb rallies a decade earlier.  Intellectuals, who had studied the background to the war and had an understanding of the stakes, and of its place in leftist dogma.  Later, as more and more young men in college realized they could very well end up in the Army if nothing changed, the ranks were far less well informed, but considerably more sanguine.  I don’t impugn the integrity of each and every war protester of the era; there were certainly many who were sincere in their beliefs.  But many more simply wanted to avoid a dangerous detour in their well ordered lives, and still others saw a way to exploit a growing movement for their own ends.  Suffice it to say that the implications of the “Girls-say-yes-to-Boys-who-say-no” campaigns of the late 1960s were not lost on the many young men of the day.

Of course, people could have simply admitted that they saw no good reason for the war, and thus wanted to save their own asses.  After all, saving their asses was what the young men who did go to war were doing every day; nothing dishonorable about it.  Even those few who didn’t end up in Vietnam just by default of the system, and who really went on an idealistic mission to stop communism, in the end only fought to save their own asses, and those of their comrades.  Honesty, as usual, though the best policy, was the least popular.

As a result of all this duplicity, it became a Matter of Principle, which is to say that people chose up sides and bitterly denounced those who refused to join them.  It is a testament to this fundamental lack of good faith that to this day there remains a considerable amount of rancor in the remnants of the debate.

And me?  I got drafted, and ended up joining the Air Force, serving in Okinawa and Germany, ironically skirting Vietnam altogether.  I didn’t join because I believed in the war, or because I was afraid of the criminal consequences of dodging the draft.  I joined so as not to break my father’s heart.

That’s about all the honor I had in me; it still is.

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Photo credit: http://www.alfred.edu/pressreleases/viewrelease.cfm?ID=7252