Published on 22 Dec 2016
The Battle of Verdun ended after 299 days. With a final French offensive the Germans lose Vacherauville and Louvemont. This means that the front line is basically back to where it was in February 1916. 300,000 men were killed and another 700,000 were wounded or missing in an area roughly equal to the size of all the London parks combined.
December 23, 2016
July 19, 2016
At Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait links to an essay that summarizes some of the confusing and contradictory motives and actions that have roiled the Middle East for the last few years:
I haven’t much to say about all this, but one thought does occur to me, which is that it seems rather wrong for Americans to blame other Americans for this bloody shambles. (Haivry himself does not blame America.) The next silliest thing to believing that your country is an unchallengeably magnificent superpower that never ever errs is to believe that your country’s mistakes and crimes are overwhelmingly more important and blameworthy than those of any other country, these two attitudes being far more similar than those who indulge in the latter one typically realise. The Middle East would surely now be a bloody shambles whatever the Americans had recently tried to do about it.
If there are imperialist villains to be blaming, how about Britain and France? But one suspects that, again, even if those notorious “lines in the sand” had never been drawn around a century ago, what would be happening on top of this sand would still now be a bloody shambles.
The only rays of light that Haivry discerns are in the form of the various little non-Islamic and anti-Islamist statelets that are starting to form, such as the newly emerging Kurdistan. The Kurds aren’t the only ones doing this, apparently. Good to hear.
Here’s the link to the Ofir Haivry essay.
In 2007, in a seminar room in Jerusalem, a day-long session was devoted to Israeli regional strategic perspectives. I was among the participants together with several other scholars, a former Israeli interior minister, a future Israeli defense minister, and two future Israeli ambassadors to the U.S. At a certain point, the talk turned to various scenarios for the regional future and the opportunities or dangers each of these entailed for Israel. When the possible breakup and partition of Arab states like Iraq or Syria was raised, the near-unanimous response was that this was simply too fantastic a scenario to contemplate.
Now we live that scenario. The great Sunni Arab implosion that began with the 2011 “Arab Spring” was unforeseen in its suddenness, violence, and extent. But some, both inside and outside the Arab world, had long suspected that, sooner or later, a day of reckoning would indeed arrive. (Among Westerners, the names of Bernard Lewis and David Pryce-Jones come most readily to mind.) Today, those in the West who acknowledge this great collapse for what it is will be better able to face the emerging realities. But the first and most important step is to recognize that there is no going back.
And what would all this entail for Western interests and for the regional policy of the U.S. (should it wish to have an active one)? There is no point in dreaming any longer of a grand deal with Iran, or of rebooting the good old days with Turkey, let alone resuscitating an Arab hegemony led by Egypt and the Saudis. As with the huge, decades-long effort by Great Britain to prop up the Ottoman empire, finally blasted in World War I, so with the increasingly forlorn effort by the U.S. to save the Sunni Arab regional order from collapsing, now finally revealed as a road to nowhere. One might as well attempt to restore the Balkans to the Habsburg empire or the Ottoman fold, or to resuscitate Yugoslavia.
With artificial regimes and borders gone, people in the region seek protection and solidarity in the old identities that have survived the Arab reverie: their nation, their religion, their tribe. These are the only building blocks upon which a new and stable system can be founded. The process will be long, complex, and fraught with difficulty, but it offers a prospect of strategic as well as moral coherence. A region redrawn along lines of actual self-definition would give voice to the communities on the ground that will become invested in its success and work for its stability.
For Western observers and policy makers, the principle should be to look with appropriately cautious favor on significant groupings that possess their own voice and some degree of self-government, while ensuring that in the event of their political defeat, they will not be exterminated—which is far more than any of the Arab world’s political systems ever offered anyone. Some of these groupings will evolve into robust independent nations, others into weak federal states or new tribal confederations. Some, cherishing the opportunity, will build thriving and prosperous democracies, and perhaps even become natural allies of the West and Israel. Others will undoubtedly, yet again, waste their opportunities, devolving into another round of petty and corrupt tribal entities—though with the advantage to themselves of ethnic and religious cohesiveness and to outsiders of being too small to entertain dreams of internal or external genocide. In the Middle East, again, not such a bad outcome.
June 2, 2016
What, gentle reader may ask, is that fundamental problem with Islam, that even many Muslims begin to understand? Now, that is a question much easier to answer.
It is the coercion thing. This has been deeply implanted through fourteen centuries, and to be fair to the religion in Egypt, it is backed by forty more of pharaonic or quasi-pharaonic history — with only a few centuries of Christian relief. Basically, your Musulman, like your modern Liberal, thinks that the Good is something that must be compelled. That is why Muslim fanatics and Leftists are likely to see eye to eye, and find ways to cooperate, wherever the work of the Devil is afoot, even though the theological differences between them are substantial. They have a common enemy, in us. They agree on the basic principle of Shariah: that law should be more than negative and preventative; that instead it should be positive and pro-active; that it is an irreplaceable tool for social engineering.
This is starkly in contrast with the Christian, or might I say, Judaeo-Christian inheritance, in which men should be discouraged from committing specific crimes, but virtues should not, indeed cannot be compelled. They can only be inspired. Christians and Jews have not always been good. Some have been tyrants. But their faith does not command them to be tyrants, does not tell them to enforce the Good, even on themselves. It tells them instead to be good. At most, Deus vult is for special occasions.
Not even God compels the Good. Instead, He tells us what it is and suggests that we choose it. He lets us make mistakes; lets us learn from the consequences, even terrible consequences. He does not chop our hand off the moment it reaches for something it should not take, for we shall need the same hand to restore what we have taken.
David Warren, “Into the desert”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-01-17.
May 1, 2016
Published on 30 Apr 2016
Check out HistoryBuffs review of Lawrence of Arabia: http://bit.ly/NickOfArabia
Big thank you to Nick from History Buffs for this collaboration. It was really fun!
T.E. Lawrence better known as Lawrence of Arabia is one of the biggest legends of World War 1. His adventures in the Middle East during the Arab Revolt were made into a movie and a bestselling book. But how did Lawrence actually end up in Cairo? And what was his relationship with Faisal?
March 14, 2016
the historical novel as we know it emerged at the end of the 18th century. The great historians of that age — Hume, Robertson, Gibbon and others — had moved far towards what may be called a scientific study of the past. They tried to base their narratives on established fact, and to connect them through a natural relationship of cause and effect. It was a mighty achievement. At the same time, it turned History from a story book of personal encounters and the occasional miracle to something more abstract. More and more, it did away with the kind of story that you find in Herodotus and Livy and Froissart. As we move into the 19th century, it couldn’t satisfy a growing taste for the quaint and the romantic.
The vacuum was filled by a school of historical novelists with Sir Walter Scott at its head. Though no longer much read, he was a very good novelist. The Bride of Lammermoor is one of his best, but has been overshadowed by the Donizetti opera. I’ve never met anyone else who has read The Heart of Midlothian. But Ivanhoe remains popular, and is still better than any of its adaptations. Whether still read or not, he established all the essential rules of historical fiction. The facts, so far as we can know them, are not to be set aside. They are, however, to be elaborated and folded into a coherent fictional narrative. Take Ivanhoe. King Richard was detained abroad. His brother, John, was a bad regent, and may not have wanted Richard back. There were rich Jews in England, and, rather than fleecing them, as the morality of his age allowed, John tried to flay them. But Ivanhoe and Isaac of York, and the narrative thread that leads to the re-emergence of King Richard at its climax — these are fiction.
I try to respect these conventions in my six Aelric novels. Aelric of England never existed. He didn’t turn up in Rome in 609AD, to uncover and foil a plot that I’d rather not discuss in detail. He didn’t move to Constantinople in 610, and become one of the key players in the revolution that overthrew the tyrant Phocas. He wasn’t the Emperor’s Legate in Alexandria a few years later. He didn’t purify the Empire’s silver coinage, or conceive the land reforms and cuts in taxes and government spending that stabilised the Byzantine Empire for about 400 years. He didn’t lead a pitifully small army into battle against the biggest Persian invasion of the West since Xerxes. He had nothing to do, in extreme old age, with Greek Fire. Priscus existed, and may have been a beastly as I describe him. I find it reasonable that the Emperor Heraclius was not very competent without others to advise him. But the stories are fabrications. They aren’t history. They are entertainment.
Even so, they are underpinned by historical fact. The background is as nearly right as I can make it. I’ve read everything I could find about the age in English and French and Latin and Greek. I’ve read dozens of specialist works, and hundreds of scholarly articles. My Blood of Alexandria is a good introduction to the political and religious state of Egypt on the eve of the Arab invasions. My Curse of Babylon is a good introduction to the Empire as a whole in the early years of the 7th century. The only conscious inaccuracy in all six novels comes in Terror of Constantinople, where I appoint a new Patriarch of Constantinople several months after the actual event. I did this for dramatic effect — among much else, it let me parody Tony Blair’s Diana Funeral reading — but I’ve felt rather bad about it ever since. This aside, any university student who uses me for background to the period that I cover will not be defrauded.
There’s nothing special about this. If you want to know about Rome between Augustus and Nero, the best place to start is the two Claudius novels by Robert Graves. Mary Renault is often as good [as] Grote or Bury on Classical Greece — sometimes better in her descriptions of the moral climate. Gore Vidal’s Julian is first class historical fiction, and also sound biography. Anyone who gets no further than C.S. Forrester and Patrick O’Brien will know the Royal Navy in the age of the French Wars. Mika Waltari is less reliable on the 18th Dynasty in The Egyptian. In mitigation, we know very little about the events and family relationships of the age between Amenhotep III and Horemheb. He wrote a memorable novel despite its boggy underpinning of fact.
I could move from here to talking about bad historical novels. But I won’t. “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is the proper text for anyone like me to bear in mind. What I will do instead is talk about some of the technical difficulties of writing historical fiction. The first is one of balance. If you write a novel about Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, you start with certain advantages. We all know roughly who these people were. We already have Rex Warner and Robert Graves and Mary Renault. We have all the films and television serials and documentaries. We know that Rome was a collapsing republic before it became an Empire, and that Alexander got as far as India, and died in Babylon. Everyone has heard of Cicero and Aristotle. It’s the same with novels set in the Second World War, or the reign of Elizabeth I. You can give the occasional spot of background, but largely get on with the narrative.
Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake”, 2014-03-14.
March 3, 2016
Published on 13 Feb 2016
The first recorded outbreak of the Bubonic Plague occurred in Pelusium, an isolated town in the Egyptian province, but soon it moved on to Alexandria. Alexandria was the breadbasket of the Empire, and ships carrying grain (and plague-bearing rats) spread across the Empire. The Plague reached Constantinople to disastrous effect: 25% of the population died. Justinian set up a burial office but even they couldnt keep up with the demand. When they ran out of burial land, they started piling corpses into ships and setting them afloat; they even packed them into the guard towers along the wall. So few people survived that when word got out that Justinian had contracted the plague, hope seemed lost… until Theodora stepped up. She had always been a force within the Empire, Justinian’s co-regent, and now she used that power to fight off the plots against him and keep the Empire together. She dealt ruthlessly with anyone who threatened them, and since many people wanted Belisarius installed on the throne as Justinian’s heir, she recalled him and pushed him out of power. She managed to keep the Empire from disintegrating into Civil War and became the symbol of hope and perserverance for a sorely demoralized city. And then, miraculously, Justinian pulled through.
June 18, 2015
Published on 23 Feb 2014
Six Day War – Israeli victory – Documentary
The shooting lasted on six tense days in June 1967, but the Six Day War has never really ended. Every crisis that has ripped through this region in the ensuing decades stems from those six fateful days. On its 40th anniversary, the region remains trapped in conflict and is every bit as explosive as it was in 1967. “Six Day War” chronicles the events of forty years ago with a fresh historical perspective. Beginning with the buildup for the war, and the political and military maneuvering of Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Egyptian President Jame Adel Nasser, the film takes us through the six days of fighting, the war with Jordan, the occupation of the West Bank and the annexation of Jerusalem. Featuring stunning archival footage and first-hand accounts of the war from both the Israeli and Arab soldiers who fought it, “Six Day War” explores how these events became the flash point in history that reshaped the regional political landscape, destroyed old systems and brought new forces to the fore.
February 6, 2015
Published on 5 Feb 2015
After more than 6 months of stalemate, the German Empire is playing two new cards to gain a decisive advantage. On the Eastern Front, the Germans use gas on a huge scale for the first time. While the attack fails, the foundation for gas warfare is laid. At the same time Kaiser Wilhelm II agrees to unrestricted submarine warfare – any ship can be sank at any time.
January 18, 2015
David Warren had a short essay get out of hand on him the other day:
Everything is coming out of Egypt these days, just like in the Bible. The Paris demonstrations were a throwback not only to the grand gatherings of a century ago, when the masses in each European capital were demanding war, but also to the recent “Arab spring,” when the masses in Egypt and every Middle Eastern capital were demanding “democracy.” Mobs often get what they want. The best that can be said for the Jesuischarlies, is they haven’t a clew what they want, beyond making an emotional display of their own vaunted goodness.
And yet, large demonstrations are expressions of despair. They bring momentary relief in a false exhilaration: the idea that something can be done, by men; something that will not cost them vastly more than they are now paying. Verily, it is the counsel of despair. I don’t think I can provide any example from history in which mass political demonstrations did any good; only examples when they did not end as badly as they could have.
I hardly expect agreement on this point, especially on non-violent demonstrations that affirm some simple moral point, such as the wrongness of racial prejudice, or of the slaughter of unborn children. But these must necessarily politicize something which should be above politics, and cannot help bringing an element of intimidation into what must finally be communicated cor ad cor. Pressure politics change everything, such that even when the cause is indisputably elevated — the American civil rights marches of the 1960s are a good example — the effect is dubious. What came out in that case was not simply the destruction of an evil, but its replacement with new evils: welfare provisions which undermined the black family, the poison of race quotas and “reverse discrimination,” the canting and excuse-making and radical posturing that has wreaked more aggregate damage to black people — both spiritual and material — than the wicked humiliations they suffered before. (Read Thomas Sowell.)
“Be careful what you wish for.” Be mindful of what comes with that wish. Be careful whom you ask to deliver it.
December 9, 2014
Scott Mendelson reviews the soon-to-open movie by Ridley Scott, and finds it awful:
Exodus: Gods and Kings is a terrible film. It is a badly acted and badly written melodrama that takes what should be a passionate and emotionally wrenching story and drains it of all life and all dramatic interest. It hits all the major points, like checking off boxes on a list, yet tells its tale at an arms-length reserve with paper-thin characters. It is arguably a film intended for adults, with violence that makes a mockery of its PG-13 rating, yet it has far less nuance, emotional impact, and moral shading than DreamWorks Animation’s PG-rated and seemingly kid-targeted The Prince of Egypt.
The film starts with an arbitrary mass battle scene, one which serves no purpose save for having a mass battle sequence to toss into the trailers. The primary alteration to the story is the inclusion of said gratuitous action beats. The film is relentlessly grim yet oddly unemotional, which is a tricky balance to accidentally pull off. The actors (who have all done excellent work elsewhere) are all oddly miscast, and that’s not even getting to the whole “really white actors playing Egyptians” thing. Oh right, that little issue… It’s actually worse than you’ve heard.
In retrospect, it may have been better to just make a 100% white cast similar to Noah. This film instead is filled with minorities in subservient roles, be it slaves, servants, or (implied) palace sex toys. Instead of merely having a film filled with only white actors, what the film does is implicitly impose a racially-based class system, where the white characters are prestigious and/or important while the various minorities are inherently second or third-class citizens almost by virtue of their skin color. I am sure this was unintentional, but that’s the visual picture that Exodus paints.
Now to be absolutely fair, even if Exodus was cast with 100% racial/ethnic authenticity, it would still be a pretty bad motion picture. The screenplay has our poor, miscast actors speaking in various accents and in a bizarre hybrid of “ancient times period piece” English and more modern American English, which leads to lines like “From an economic standpoint alone, what you’re asking is problematic,” which is Rameses’s (Joel Edgerton) response to Moses’s initial plea to “Let my people go!”
October 22, 2014
New interests and different locations are provided by an iPad app that gathers pages relevant to my interests, and lets me indulge particular subjects, like “Ancient History.” This gives me the impression I am learning something, and perhaps I am, but when you finish an article about Xobar the Cruel who ruled during the Middle Period of the Crinchothian Empire (140 square miles in modern-day Herzo-Slavbonia) you think “well, there’s something of which I was previously unaware, and let’s preen for a second about being the sort of person who cares about ancient history,” and then it’s all forgotten. It’s all the history of rulers, which means the history of cruelty, and the remnants of settlements, which means the history of floors and walls and tombs. I fault myself for not having a better grasp on the shadowy beginnings of civilization; it doesn’t snap into focus until the Greeks, and then you’re surprised because they have shoes and religion and government and traditions and the rest of the recognizable pillars that hold up the ceiling mankind builds to put some space between himself and the raging caprices of the gods above. Except for Egypt, where they were doing stuff for a long time, but it was weird.
James Lileks, The Bleat, 2014-04-01
July 23, 2014
In History Today, Colin Shindler reviews a recent collection of essays on the initially successful surprise attack on Israeli forces by Egypt, Syria, and a token brigade from Jordan in early October, 1973.
During the early afternoon of October 6th, 1973 the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and overran the Israeli Bar-Lev line on the eastern bank. This assault on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, was designed to reverse Israel’s conquest of the Sinai peninsula during the 1967 Six Day War.
Six hundred Syrian tanks, outnumbering Israel’s 178, also advanced to reclaim the Golan Heights and to threaten a penetration of Israel’s heartland. The mehdal (blunder) indicated a profound intelligence failure and cost 2,691 Israeli lives. Forty years on, Asaf Siniver has gathered his colleagues to dissect this war in a series of essays.
The October or Ramadan War – as it is known in Egypt – is celebrated as a holiday even though Arab losses were around 18,000. The Yom Kippur war – as it is known in Israel – is regarded more as an enforced stalemate, even though Israeli forces crossed back over the canal, encircled the Egyptian Third Army and were 60 miles from Cairo. The Syrians, too, were pushed back and the Israelis shelled the outer suburbs of Damascus. Soviet threats to involve the USSR directly in the conflict forced President Nixon to stop the Israelis in their tracks.
February 9, 2014
Nigel Davies looks at the uncritical admiration of the form of democracy (while actively ignoring the actual practice) among Western media people:
It is interesting to look around the world at the moment and identify the failures of democracy, and to be amused by the Western media’s complete incomprehension of what is going on and why.
Time and time again you get headlines about how people should stand back and accept the ‘democratically elected government’, despite the fact that the democratic result was a fairly evil dictator keen on persecution, mass murder, civil war and ethnic cleansing.
This is because most ignorant Western journalists believe as an absolute truth that ‘democracy’ is a good thing, despite all the evidence that democracy is as bad, or even worse, than any other form of government. (Interestingly many non-western journalists treat democracy with considerable scepticism, which baffles Western journalists even more.)
Just to be clear Robespiere, Napoleon III, Mussolini and Adolf Hitler were in some form ‘democratically elected’ leaders, and every Communist dictator, ever, has regularly received about 97% of the popular vote in their countries.
Which brings us to unofficial one party states, like South Africa, where there is a popular vote which means virtually nothing. People get a say, but there is no chance of removing the party which — very largely through its dreadful economic and social policies — has kept the vast majority of the voters ignorant and poor (while flooding them with propaganda suggesting that result is an outside conspiracy, and only the people’s party can save them …) Actually some of you might recognise this more directly as being Mugabe’s very blunt approach, but the principal is the same when adopted by more weasely worded one party statists (for whom too many Western journalists have a romanticised and highly inaccurate perspective).
Most African (and many Asian and Middle Eastern … and Eastern European) ‘nations’ that pretend to democracy, are effectively one party states where the ‘opposition’ is never really going to be allowed to get anywhere.
A current example he points to is Egypt:
I am not just talking about people like Hitler who managed to manipulate 25-30% of the vote to dominate a chaotic parliament long enough to change all the rules and entrench their power. (Though that appears to be the default result for 90-95% of all Republics throughout all history, so perhaps it is worthy of some reflection.) No, I am more interested in places where a genuine majority of the population vote repeatedly for a leader who every educated and thinking (not the same thing unfortunately) person knows will lead them to disaster.
Effectively what we are talking about here is popularistic appeals to the ignorant peasantry who make up the majority of the population.
Egypt recently elected the Muslim Brotherhood. This was done by the majority votes of the ignorant peasants in the rural areas, and against the wishes of practically anyone who could be classed as educated, literate, liberal, or with an understanding of rule of law, or role of commerce and legal rights in a modern society. Ie: the traditional appeal to the ignorant to grab control of the ‘means of production’ and ‘distribute it more fairly’ — which always leads to the same results of poverty and persecution whether you call it a Fascist state (Nazi Germany) Communist state (People’s Republic), Theocratic state (Muslim republic, Hindu republic, North Korea), or just a kleptocracy.
Naturally the Western journalists believe the Muslim Brotherhood should be left to develop its ‘democratic’ course.
The inevitable result of letting the Muslim Brotherhood rewrite the constitution and entrench their powers while introducing a Muslim republic with proper Sharia laws, would be a particularly nasty form of dictatorship. Like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, future votes would have been ‘controlled’ and eventually pointless. So the intervention of the military to throw them out and try and redo the democratic project was necessary, and possibly the only (very slim) hope of making it work. However, like Fiji, it may be only the start of many interventions to stop backsliding, until the military and people give up in disgust and settle down to exactly the sort of dictatorship which, more or less, kept things together and slowly moving forward under their previous dictators.
December 24, 2013
It may sound rather cynical, but it does seem to capture the essential elements:
Yesterday, as the world cheered the release of two members of the punk band Pussy Riot from prison in Russia, 450 members of the Muslim Brotherhood went on hunger strike in jails in Egypt. These political prisoners, whose ‘crimes’ include supporting deposed President Mohamed Morsi and taking part in protests calling for his reinstatement, have received rather less global sympathy than Pussy Riot. Even when, last month, 14 women and seven girls were sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment in Egypt for taking part in an unauthorised pro-Morsi protest, still there was little global outrage. The women and girls (whose punishment has since been reduced to a one-year suspended sentence) were not emblazoned on trendy Westerners’ t-shirts; Madonna didn’t demand their release; Amnesty didn’t pump vast amounts of its resources into calling for their sentences to be squashed, as it has done with Pussy Riot, who have been its main campaigning priority over the past year.
So what does it take for political prisoners to become a cause célèbre among influential Westerners? How can political prisoners overseas win the attention and flattery of human-rights groups, celebs and the concerned commentariat? Here’s an invaluable guide for any locked-up man or woman of conscience who craves the support of human-rights activists.
August 20, 2013
B.K. Marcus on what schoolchildren don’t learn about the famous New York city landmark:
Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi wanted wealth and world renown for building a celebrated colossus, and he was willing to shop the idea around — even to the era’s most illiberal customers.
His first pitch for a giant, torch-bearing statue was to the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, which was, at the time, the single greatest commercial conduit for the international slave trade.
The statue that now stands in New York Harbor is officially called “Liberty Enlightening the World” (La Liberté éclairant le monde). The statue in Egypt was to be called “Egypt Enlightening the World” or, more awkwardly, “Progress Carrying the Light to Asia.”
Failing to close the deal in Egypt, Bartholdi repackaged it for America.
When this bit of backstory reached the American public, Bartholdi denied that one project had anything to do with the other, but the similarity in designs is unmistakable.
Egypt was a vassal state of an authoritarian empire and the gateway for the colossal African slave trade into Asia — whereas the fundraising for the Statue of Liberty proposed a monument not merely to liberty but to the recent abolition of American slavery. (Picture the broken chains at the Statue of Liberty’s feet.)
The original statue was to be an Egyptian woman — a fellah, or native peasant — draped in a burqa, one outstretched arm holding a torch to guide the ships on the great waterway over which she would stand.
Bartholdi had wanted to place his piece at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal in Port Said because the canal represented French greatness in general and engineering greatness more specifically. His statue was to be a synthesis of French art and French engineering, as well as a political symbol of the progress that France offered the East.
The canal was indeed a great engineering accomplishment and a giant step forward for world trade and greater wealth and comfort for everyone — including the toiling masses. But it was built on the back of slave labor, a 10-year corvée that forced Egyptian peasants to do the digging. Thousands died.