Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Middle Age 1: Shoveling Waters

It isn’t a shovel, it’s an entrenching system and I really needed it.

A quarter century ago, when I was an usher at a movie theater, I saw “A River Runs Through It.” Based on autobiographical stories by Norman MacLean, the film ends with the author as an old man fly-fishing in a river and thinking over his life, the people he has loved, and their places in the great river of time. The film ends with him intoning, “I am haunted by waters.”

I was haunted by the soundtrack and every day since I first heard it I have been humming it to myself. Just a few weeks ago it finally occurred to me to buy it.

What does this have to do with buying a portable shovel? I mean entrenching system?

I will turn forty-seven years old in a few months. By no means is my life over, there is a lot still to come. Some wonderful things. But outside of rarefied roles like Supreme Court Justice or Pope, I am not young anymore.

If life is a sort of vacation from something else – and sometimes I believe it is – I don’t need to start packing yet. But if there is something I really want to do before heading home, I should probably get to it sooner rather than later.

We live for possibilities and I still have many. But there are also limitations. There are so many things that I know will not happen now. There just won’t be time or I don’t really have the drive or talent. This is a hard thing to know, but in time the bigger things become smaller and the smaller things become bigger.

I’m not the old man at the end of the movie yet, but he is not some distant relative. I greet him as a friend. So I bought a shovel – I mean an entrenching system.

I am not one to take up fly-fishing in a beautiful Montana canyon. But I live close to a creek. An ancient one that, in the winter when the trees are bare and you look, you can see the sinews of the land and how over time this little trickle of water has gouged the earth.

After a heavy rain this little creek runs hard and deep, show its great power – moving swiftly enough that it is plain even to us with our lives of mere decades.

After one storm, I saw a spot where the water crashed over rocks clogged with leaves. I watched for a long while as the water pressed forward, colliding, forming eddies. I could have watched forever.

But instead, with a stick I began clearing the debris. And it brought me such a simple joy to ease the way of the waters.

As days went by, I returned and I found more and more places where I could unblock the water. But I needed tools. Sometimes there were small shoals where water gathered and sat, stagnant.

So I bought a little shovel, rather an entrenching system and I headed to
the stream.

My wife observed that there is no shortage of chores around the house. A yard to clear, gutters to clean. She’s right of course. My work clearing the stream has no purpose. The waters have been going where they are supposed to go since the earth formed and will do so until it is no more. My small efforts amount to nothing.

But whenever I have a few moments, I take my shovel, I mean my entrenching system and go to the creek. My headphones stream the soundtrack to “A River Runs Through It,” though sometimes I take them off to hear the waters murmur. And for a little while I touch something so much greater than myself and my tiny cares.

I am haunted by waters.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Meditations on 9/11

Life is full of pain. Pain is how we know we are alive. People living in in the wealthiest, most tolerant and modern social welfare states still face challenges and strife. People become ill, are humiliated, suffer setbacks, fall in and out of love. As Joyce shows in Ulysses, even the humblest among us is in fact the hero of his or her own great quest.

Fifteen years ago today people went to work, went about their lives, facing these private struggles when the world interrupted their private struggles with a cataclysmic global one.

We saw wondrous heroism that day. We really did see the best of humanity, not only in the air above Pennsylvania, and the Ground Zeros in New York and DC – but also in far off Newfoundland. Humanity’s worst brings out humanity’s best.

Fifteen years on, I hate the social pathologies across the Middle East. These pathologies keep metastasizing into rage and madness. Middle Eastern societies cannot provide the space for people to get on with their lives. I worry that modernity – this wonderful enterprise that has brought extraordinary wealth and opportunity to so many – is also undermining ancient patterns of life, leading to more of the rage we saw on 9/11.

I am not a pacifist. Since Cain set upon Abel, there have been dark places in the souls of individuals and in humanity’s collective soul. We institute governments to protect us from this darkness. Part of that protection is the authority to kill. Good governments deal in death judiciously – inasmuch as they are able. Like physicians, they must strive to first do no harm. I will defend the United States as the least bad great power in history (something that must be graded on a steep curve), which for all of its mistakes has also done great, great goods.

But push the politics and analysis aside. Seeing lives snuffed out pointlessly and en masse, is a terrible, terrible things.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Mourning in America: Tisha B'Av Thoughts

Today is Tisha B'Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year.

(Tisha B'Av means the 9th day of the month of Av, so technically it is not. It is the 10th of Av today, but because yesterday was Shabbat and we don't mourn and fast on Shabbat, the day of sadness was pushed to today.)

Tisha B'Av remembers the day the First and then the Second Temples were destroyed (according to legend this occurred on the same day, separating by hundreds of years - round one was the Babylonians, round two the Romans.)

In both cases the city of Jerusalem was besieged and sacked. The people were forced into exile. The suffering was immense. (We read the Book of Lamentations by the Prophet Jeremiah.)
Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Loss of Jerusalem
The religious theme is that the Jewish people were not faithful to the Lord, but with a return to faith and observance will come redemption. It ends on a hopeful note. Especially now that the great exile is over and there is a Jewish state.

But my mind went elsewhere.

In Lamentations, Jeremiah discusses people - kings and priests even - dying by sword and plague. Mothers cannot feed their children and jackals emerge. A great vibrant city full of life is no more.

Civilization, this vast edifice, appears strong. But so it appeared to the Romans until the Goths burst through. In some profound ways it is built on thin, weak bonds. Our financial system (to take one example) is based on the word of the United States government. When it comes to it, so much of our civilization is based on words - the weakest bond and yet the strongest.

What if it isn't robust? True, as horrible as the World Wars were, civilization survived. But there were bastions far removed from the fighting to preserve. That same interconnected world that makes it all seem strong, would allow contagion to spread blindingly fast.

Could a few bad policy decisions start to undo all that has been built, allowing the jackals to emerge?

I would like to think not. The Jewish people survived that and much, much more, and our culture is built on words.

But many other great civilizations fell and disappeared into the dust.

The physical infrastructure that preserves lightning communications is pretty extensive. The resources and expertise to preserve would remain, too much depends on it. They are far stronger bonds than the old Roman roads. But of course the Romans couldn't imagine their world coming to end and bringing on the Dark Ages either.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Oh Canada! Part 1 - Capital is the Window to the Soul

As my followers on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram know, I was just in Ottawa. It was an absolutely delightful city and I had a terrific time. But I also learned something about Canada, a magnificent and interesting country. It just so happens to be Canada Day, so as good a time as any to kick off a series of posts.

There are three facts about Ottawa that are useful to know (particularly for an American):

  1. This friendly, modern, low-key city, when it was established was a rough town of lumberjacks, slowing hewing a life out of a vast difficult wilderness.
  2. The city's development took off with the building of the Rideau Canal which linked the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers. This impressive feat of engineering was undertaken to create a secure line of communication between Upper and Lower Canada that couldn't be cut by the Americans.
  3. The dominant official architecture is effectively neo-medieval.
I'll take on one and two in later posts. But the third item fascinates me. Readers of this blog know my interest in Canada stems from several sources, including Canadian bravery on the world stage and the fact that it is a liberal democracy that doesn't systematically abuse its citizens. I also really like Canadian literature and my favorite novelist, Robertson Davies, is Canadian and - heavily influenced by Jung - was fascinated by the middle ages.

I live in the Washington, DC area and Washington DC is the greatest accumulation of neo-classical architecture in the world. I love all the white marble and pillars. Every other building looks like a Greek temple. Rooted in symmetry, the buildings reflect the Enlightenment values the Founding Fathers revered. The core of these values is reason.

Canada went another way. Here's a picture of the Ottawa skyline from the river. My phone doesn't do it justice, but there is a line of neo-medieval buildings. The neo-Gothic parliament and its buildings and then the French chateau inspired Supreme Court. With this line of stone (granite and sandstone mostly) buildings sitting on a high bluff, it really made me think of Edinburgh, Scotland. (Beyond it of course are the glass and steel offices of any big city.) If you want more pics, they are on my twitter feed (from some angles, Canada's gorgeous Parliament Hill looks like Hogwarts.)

Sorry I didn't do justice to this magnificent view!
There are two obvious explanations for these architectural decisions. The first is simply fashion, neo-Gothic is what they were building in England when Ottawa was growing into its role as Canada's capital in the late 1800s. Or Canada specifically chose neo-Gothic to contrast with the U.S. neoclassical style (but I don't think so - everything doesn't have to be about us!)
Entrance into Canada's House of Commons

Davies, a good Jungian, recognized the limits of reason. It has its place of course, but it is not the only way of understanding the world. He felt that in an era that revered reason, feeling was lost. One of his main characters, Dunstan Ramsey - a sort of personification of Canada - is a flinty Scottish schoolmaster. On the side he writes about Saints and believes he has witnessed miracles.

This is perhaps the central theme of his work, that all things (people, institutions, eras) contain their opposite. That opposite or shadow or devil needs to be met. Not fought, not defeated, but understood. We cannot exist without it and are the better when we know it.

Chateau Laurier, a renown hotel, next to Parliament looks like a fairy-tale!
The neo-Gothic revival was part of the broader Romantic movement which arose as a response to neo-classicism. The steady rationalisation of society (including the industrial revolution) brought progress, but also pain. Conservatives worried about a loss in human spirit as well as the suffering. In contrast to the Enlightenment's reason, there was a need for feeling. As the scripture reminds us, "Man cannot live by bread alone."
Parliament Hill really looks like a castle

In the Middle Ages, a great Empire had just collapsed and Europe was only just recovering. There was still an echo of the Dark Ages, the vast frightening disorder that dominated after Rome fell. For all the soaring architecture, there was a humility to the Middle Ages and that too needed a re-awakening after Enlightenment confidence. For a nation carved from an incomparably vast land, that caution and humility - with a hint of spirituality seems just right.

I don't want to overdo it with this mysticism and talk of the Middle Ages. Ottawa is a pleasant lovely city, dominated by civil servants, with an air of earnestness and particularly Canadian politeness. When the weather was nice, EVERYONE, was on their bike. They were not the wizened sages of Robertson Davies, just people going through their lives. But perhaps that is part of the point. In Washington, much seems portentous (even if it doesn't) as technocrats and legislative aides imagine they are shaping the world to come - the American extraversion Davies criticized. Strip that away, that is all surface - politics is not what really feeds the soul - this according to a top political scientist.

And that is the point, getting the stuff we need - material and spiritual - to get through and make something of our lives. Everyone faces that same quest.

With all the Jung and Davies rattling around in my head, I thought I was encountering my shadow when I saw this piece of public art on the Alexandra Bridge between Ottawa and Gatineau. Entitled Zoom! V2 by Randall Anderson, who is interested in the impact when a body collides with the unknown. So, maybe...


Thursday, June 30, 2016

Thin Red Line at Normandy

Every summer brings a host of military anniversaries. Tomorrow is the centenary of the Somme, that vast, tragic battle in which modern machinery devoured Romantic chivalry by the tens of thousands.

But there is a smaller engagement I remember in late June. Operation Epsom (or the First Battle of the Odon), in which my favorite Scottish unit (the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) went head to head with some of the toughest formations of the Wehrmacht.

Background: or why I even have a favorite Scottish regiment
I’ve written that I have a certain fondness for the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. They are a storied unit that has fought around the world with bravery and distinction. They faced the Americans under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans and were the famed “Thin Red Line” holding off the Russians at Balaclava.

Why I like the Argylls is a bit more complicated, and starts about a quarter-century ago. I'd had a fondness for things Scottish. On a family trip to the UK I absorbed a Holiday History of Scotland. This inspired me to write a short story about MacBeth in which he was a reforming liberal and practical politician.  I interspersed it with quotations from Machiavelli's The Prince and cleverly titled it The Scottish Prince.

I was taking a class in college on the history of the Bible, taught by a wonderful curmudgeon who insisted we learn actual dates. I went to a school filled with very creative people who found this almost as overwhelming as algebra. I, on the other hand loved history and had been through Hebrew school, so this material was not unfamiliar.  I didn't really need to study for the exam, and when I took it, I finished in about 10 minutes and blew the curve.  (This was unique, I am generally a terrible student.) But I helped organize and lead a study group (there might have been a young woman I was enamored with, I really don’t remember).

We stayed up all night studying, I had everyone make timelines. It was around Passover/Easter – The Ten Commandments was on TV in the background. Heading home through Brookline, someone had left a painting of redcoats with kilts out for the trash. I liked it. It stayed with me, through several moves and getting married. I always found a place for it on my wall.

Fast forward about fifteen years. I was at a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. My wife was with me and we were doing some sightseeing. (I could happily tour every castle and battlefield in Scotland, followed by fish and chips at a pub. Is heaven like Scotland on a sunny day? I hope so.)

At Stirling Castle, we had done the tour and I was wandering around when I heard my wife calling for me. There it was, my painting. The castle is the home of the regimental museum of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The painting is The Thin Red Line (from the regiment’s stand at Balaclava.)

Operation Epsom: The Argylls at Normandy
So, as I was listening to Keegan’s Six Armies at Normandy, there was a little added thrill that the Argylls were present with the Scottish Division.

Of course, these weren’t really the Argylls. The regular regiment had been captured when Singapore fell. The Argylls of D-Day were originally a Territorial unit, which virtually overnight inherited the weighty traditions and history of their namesake unit.

They were, Keegan writes, “innocents to war inasmuch as Scots can ever be.”

Hearing this, as I drove to and from work, I was worried about their fate and became even more worried as they were deployed in Operation Epsom.

The German plan was to use its Panzer divisions to split the allied forces and crush them. The large force being assembled included Panzer Lehr, the most formidable armored division of the Wehrmacht. If Darth Vader were working for Hitler (an entirely imaginable scenario) Panzer Lehr sounds like his personal strike force. It is a unique quality of the German language to take utterly innocent words and make them sound frightening. Lehr means teaching, Panzer Lehr was the teaching division - which is why they had to be the best, they set the example. So they were pretty bad-ass.

Meanwhile, the British were planning their own offensive to seize strategic ground in preparation for liberating the city of Caen. The Scottish Division led the way, attempting to establish a corridor through which allied troops could move into the critical territory. The Argylls had a lead position and, fighting through German defenses had moved across the Odon River when they Germans counter-attacked. Five Panzer divisions struck the Scottish Division, with the Argylls most exposed and without tanks of their own to counter the Germans. 

Over the next five days, Panzer divisions savaged the Scottish division. It paid a high price, 2500 casualties, but was not dislodged. Operation Epsom did not achieve its objective, but in absorbing the counter-attack it had blunted Hitler's strategic reserve and foiled his plan of using his armor to split the allied forces.

In the past, I wrote about a unit’s colors representing its soul - that a military unit has a certain, ineffable quality. In Operation Epsom, the Argylls lived up to their history. Keegan writes:
Unspectacular, muddied, wearisome and intermittently terrifying, it had blunted the assault of one of the most formidable fighting formations in the German army and stood fit to rank with those other small epics of Argyll and Scottish stubbornness, the destruction of the 93rd at the battle of New Orleans and the stand of the 'thin red line' at Balaclava.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Bureaucratic Politics of Pesach

The paradigm I am most capable of applying to a situation is bureaucratic politics - it was my dissertation after all and has also been a focus of my more recent work.

It is fundamentally about how policy is shaped by the push and pull of actors (heavily shaped by their institutional affiliations). It has only limited explanatory power, but it is not negligible. From a personal standpoint it is appealing because so much political science focuses on big structural forces while bureaucratic politics is, fundamentally about people. Studying it has helped imbue me with critical empathy - a healthy respect for the man in the arena.

Graham Allison, who wrote one of the sacred texts of bureaucratic politics, began with this quotation from the great Alexis de Tocqueville:
I have come across men of letters who have written history without taking part in public affairs, and politicians who have concerned themselves with producing events without thinking about them. I have observed that the first are always inclined to find general causes, whereas the second, living in the midst of disconnected daily facts, are prone to imagine that everything is attributable to particular incidents, and that the wires they pull are the same as those that move the world. It is to be presumed that both are equally deceived.

As I sat through Seder and heard the story of Passover, of the Jewish people's redemption from slavery, my mind drifted to bureaucratic politics. Certainly the story lends itself to theology and philosophy (the redemption from Egypt and the later revelation of the Torah, the great human quest for freedom and self-government and the balance between liberty and responsibility.) It also lends itself to more traditional IR power political analyses. But, when you have a hammer, every problem is a nail...

Notes on Reading the Bible
In thinking about bureaucratic politics and the story of Exodus we must wrestle with the question of how true is the Bible? Did everything happen exactly literally as it was described? Or is it based on true stories that over time have become myth. It is also entirely possible that the Bible is entirely fantastic and untrue. This does not diminish it, false stories can reveal deep truths. Nonetheless, I am inclined to take the middle path, that something extraordinary happened. I don't believe in miracles, but I believe in the miraculous. I don't believe in lighting coming from heaven, but rather that incredibly unlikely things occur. I view the founding of Israel in this light. There was nothing supernatural. It was merely very unlikely, yet it happened and - who knows - in 300 years Ben-Gurion will be seen as a wizard and miracle-worker. Maybe he was...

Marc Chagall: Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh from the Jewish Museum
So in that vein, something incredible happened in Egypt a few thousand years ago. But let's dispense with outright magic. Did Moses part the Red Sea, perhaps not. But he knew a place where the waters were low and a band of refugees could safely cross. Perhaps an advance guard of the pursuing army was trapped in the mud and massacred and drowned.

Putting aside the fundamental theological argument that Exodus is a precise, literal transcription of what occurred, this view reduces the fundamental wonder of it all. People crave wonder, religion is based in wonder. Personally, I think there is an astounding amount of wonder in the world as it is. But a realist version of the Exodus story has some advantages for making the text make sense.

The "negotiation" between Hashem/Moses and Pharaoh always seemed problematic. A plague occurs, Pharaoh relents, and then Hashem "hardens" his heart and another terrible plague occurs. It seems cruel, and why ten times? Why at all? All powerful Hashem could have brought the Jews from Egypt without effort.

The general answer to the endless plagues, rather than a single overwhelming miracle, is that Hashem needed to demonstrate his great power to the world. But the bureaucratic politics interpretation, in which Moses - using asymmetries of information and maybe some clever early biological warfare - in attempting to leverage a weak position to his advantage, actually makes the story more compelling.

The story of Pesach is the beginning of humanity's quest for freedom and effort to come to terms with that freedom. If Moses is a bureaucratic politics David, outwitting Pharaoh's Goliath (an anachronism) it puts humanity front and center in the story - which only strengthens the story of how we obtain the freedom Hashem grants us.

I won't tell the entire bureaucratic politics version of the story here. But, like the story of Joseph, I think it would make an amazing novel. But let's at least take a look at the players.

Moses as Policy Entrepreneur
Could anyone have had a better resume for liberating the Jewish people than Moses? First, he was born into a leading Jewish family. His brother (Aaron!!!) was the High Priest. So he had credibility within his community. But he was raised in Pharaoh's house. He knew the ins and outs of the place. He had, as do most policy entrepreneurs, blended knowledge that included substantial expertise and tacit knowledge of process.

But, Moses was exiled to the desert - where he married into a leading clan. While he was off tending flocks he was learning the ways of the desert and making contacts among the tribes - gaining critical information needed for his people to survive their Sinai sojourn. Was there manna from heaven? Or was Moses calling in favors from Jethro's kinfolk? How did he know just where to cross the Red Sea when the water would be low?

By the end of The Ten Commandmants (if not from the beginning) Moses is kind of a handsome dull Dudley DoRight. No doubt, no initiative, just faith, stoicism, and tenacity. But in this light he is clever, adaptable, and creative. It makes Moses a much more compelling figure who brings real agency to the story.

Pharoah: Standing Where He Sits
The expression "hardened Pharaoh's heart" has always troubled me. But with the bureaucratic politics paradigm, it makes more sense, he was being pulled in a lot directions. He was a tyrant, but a weak one, who (as the weak often do) feared appearing weak. When the Hebrew slaves agitate he is prepared to set them free. Moses (and Aaron!!!) make a good case and the slaves are proving to be more trouble than they are worth. But then his security advisors warn that the release of the slaves makes him look weak. Moneyed interests remind him of the value of this free labor. Pharoah goes back and forth.

Pharoah too, becomes more human, although no less monstrous for it. He is not the austere tyrant who imagines himself a god. Rather he is a man, limited, overwhelmed, and outplayed. He has, like most tyrants, been riding a tiger and knows only that when he stops riding he will be devoured.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Skybolt: A Historic Case Study of Pressuring an Ally

There has been some discussion about how the United States is carrying its allies and needs them to step up to the plate. I won't mention any specific presidential candidates so as not to violate a certain self-imposed rule. But our relationships with our allies are a complex web of dependencies. Nothing is simple and there are no easy gains. The recent discussion has inspired to me write about...

It was an air-launched ballistic missile that the United States started developing with the United Kingdom in the 1950s. Under JFK, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara determined Skybolt was a boondoggle that was much too expensive. The sensible thing to do was kill it.

But for the British it was very important. It was their only path to maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent. There was an alternative, the Polaris submarine launched ballistic missile, but the U.S. didn't want the U.K. to have it (for various reasons that were very important at the time.) The issue was playing out up and down the U.S. and British national security bureaucracies until, at a summit at Nassau in the Bahamas, JFK was blindsided on this issue.

He was not happy and had the distinguished scholar of the presidency Professor Richard Neustadt, write a report in April 1963 and it was handed in on November 15. Kennedy read it over the weekend and handed the report to the First Lady and said, "If you want to know what my life is like, read this."

Sadly, that was the only feedback Neustadt received. The President travelled to Dallas on November 22, the rest of the story is well-known.

The Report
Having survived the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, Kennedy looked forward to his meeting with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Then, as now, British Prime Ministers and U.S. Presidents were often friends - as much as two politicians can be friends.

But the British delegation was not in good humour, and they demanded a resolution on Skybolt. The discussion continued, the Americans were unwilling to continue the program and sought formulae in which the British would be part of a joint NATO nuclear force. But this was unacceptable for a proud nation. There must be Skybolt or the British must have Polaris.

Finally, Macmillan hit Kennedy right between the eyes. Neustadt quotes extensively from the notes National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy took of Macmillan's appeal and so will I:

Churchill had told him in 1940 that in logic it was impossible to win the war, but they had gone on. There were lots of people in Britain would would like to chuck it, which would enable them to have better pensions and a more satisfactory life. The....alternative [to a POLARIS agreement] was to say this is a complicated system - The Americans won't give it to us - we will go and make it eventually and be free. This would be better than putting a British sailor aboard a ship to have tea with the Portuguese. To give up would mean that Britain was not the nation that had gone through its previous history. We should consider that if the people who wanted to give up in Britain came to power, who would make the better ally? Those were the ones we were supporting in Britain by our policies....
Either Britain must stay in the nuclear club or he would resign and we would have a permanent series of Gaitskells [British Labour leader]
He would not engage in anything petty. We could stay at Holy Loch [nuclear submarine base]....Britain could make submarines - not nuclear ones - to carry missiles. This could be accomplished...but costs would have to be compensated elsewhere....They would have to tax their people more as well. Such a course would lead to a deep rift with the United States. He said he would not accuse America....
After that, Kennedy relented and agreed to share the Polaris with the U.K. It led a great expansion of the special friendship.

I could analyze this. Macmillan made his appeal and smart combination of emotional and hard political points. U.K. too had its history and values, which could not simply be ignored. At the same time, there would be an impact on British domestic politics which would not be favorable to the United States. It is not just about getting a deal. There is a relationship that continues on in time and space.

But perhaps I should just let the words speak for themselves. Allow me to quote another eloquent Englishman who pre-dated Macmillan by a few centuries.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
When you push countries around, expect to be pushed back.