Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Stone That the Builder Refused

Today, November 25, is a Sunday, the 329th day of 2007.

Notable literary events of November 25 include the births of Leonard Woolf (1880) and Lewis Thomas. Thomas, who wrote The Lives of a Cell, was born in 1913 in Flushing, New York. As it happens, my wife's mother was also born in 1913, and her late father was from Flushing, so there's a little nexus of coincidence there.

Another nexus of convergence are those between the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, and between the Bible and later literary works. Earlier this year I read a book called The Stone That the Builder Refused. The work is the last part of a trilogy by Madison Smartt Bell. The Stone That the Builder Refused has xvii + 747 pages, and I read it between August 10 and September 27, 2007. As far as I knew at that point, the source of the title was a lyric by Bob Marley, the reggae artist, cited at the beginning of the book.

I now know that the phrase has a much older provenance than can be found in Jamaican reggae. I am reading the Bible (New International Version), and on November 19 I reached Psalm 118. At verse 22 I find this phrase: "The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone." (The King James Version has, at Psalm 118:22, "The stone which the builders refused is beome the head stone of the corner.")

The phrase appears again in the New Testament. 1 Peter 2:7 states: "Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, 'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.'" In this latter context, Peter is using "stone" as a metaphor indicating that the Christians to whom he is writing are the building blocks of the church. In that sense, I suppose, this is another way of saying that Christians are important to God, even though they may be scorned by non-believers.

Psalm 118 also contains a very familiar phrase, often used to open Christian services. Psalm 118:24: "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it."

Another example of the use of Old Testament language in the New Testament is also drawn from Psalm 118. Verses 6-7 read "The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? The Lord is with me; he is my helper. I will look in triumph on my enemies."

Compare Hebrews 13:6: "So we say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?"

When I was a child the only Psalm I ever heard much about was the 23rd ("The Lord is my shepherd, ..."). It is interesting to find that the 118th is quoted in two different books of the New Testament, as well as in modern church services.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tolstoy and Poetry: November 21, 2007

Today is Wednesday, November 21, 2007, the 325th day of the year. This is the birthdate of Voltaire (1694) and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863), and the anniversary of the death of Count Leo Tolstoy (1910).

I heard an interesting story about the death of Tolstoy. Apparently, as he and his wife aged (they were married for 48 years), they both became mistrustful. She was seized of the idea that he had written her out of his will. He insisted that he there was no new will, but she was so possessed of this idea that she searched his study. When the 82-year-old Tolstoy caught her rummaging through his stuff, he blew up and fled. He caught pneumonia and died on the train trip.
Another writer, a Latin poet, died 1902 years before Tolstoy. Horace - Quintus Horatius Flaccus - was born in 65 B.C.E. and died in 8 C.E. He was, therefore, 21 when Julius Caesar was assassinated, and he lived through the closing years of the Roman Republic and the beginnings of the Empire.

Maecenas atavis edite

Maecenas, sprung from an ancient line of kings,
my stronghold, my pride, and my delight,
some like to collect Olympic dust
on their chariots, and if their scorching wheels

graze the turning-post and they win the palm of glory,
they become lords of the earth and rise to the gods;
one man is pleased if the fickle mob of Roman citizens
competes to lift him up to triple honours;

another, if he stores away in his own granary
the sweepings from all the threshing-floors of Libya;
the man who enjoys cleaving his ancestral fields
with the mattock, you could never move, not with the legacy

of Attalus, to become a frightened sailor
cutting the Myrtoan sea with Cyprian timbers;
the merchant, terrified at the brawl of African gale
with Icarian waves, is all for leisure and the countryside

round his own home town, but he is soon rebuilding
his shattered ships – he cannot learn to endure poverty;
there is a man who sees no objection to drinking
old Massic wine or taking time out of the day,

stretched out sometimes under the green arbutus,
sometimes by a gently welling spring of sacred water;
many enjoy the camp, the sound of the trumpet merged
in the bugle, the wars that mothers

abhor; the huntsman stays out under a cold sky,
and forgets his tender wife the moment
his faithful dogs catch sight of a hind
or a Marsian boar bursts his delicate nets.

Horace , Odes, Book I, I
Translated by David West (1997)
The sentiment in the third verse of that poem is found again, with a sardonic twist, in the first stanza and the ending of this one:
Beatus ille
Fortunate the man who, free from cares,
like men of old still works
his father's fields with his own oxen,
encumbered by no debt.
No soldier he, aroused by bugle's blare,
nor does he fear the angry sea.
The Forum he avoids and lofty doors
of powerful citizens....'
When Alfius the money lender said all this,
resolved at last, at last, to be a countryman,
he called in all his money on the Ides -
and on the Kalends now he tries to place it out again.
Horace, Epodes, II
Translated by David West (1997)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Knight's Reading List II: February 2007

In February 2007 I finished reading the following books:

Caro, Robert A. Master of the Senate. 2002. xxiv + 1167 pages. Includes Selected Bibliography, Notes, Index. Volume 3 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

Drake, David A. Other Times than Peace. 2006. 331 pages.

O’Brian, Patrick. H. M. S. Surprise. 1971. 379 pages.

Other Times than Peace is a collection of Drake’s stories in various warlike settings, going back nearly 30 years. For those who don’t know, David Drake is a lawyer and Vietnam veteran who has written a very large amount of fantasy and science fiction. His sensibilities are stark. His imagery is informed by his personal experience of war. I am pleased to be able to count Dave as a friend. Those of you who read the eleven stories in this volume may discern some of the reasons I value Dave as a friend, and as an author of solid, engaging prose.

I spoke of Patrick O’Brian in the context of one of the books in my January 2007 list, Post Captain. Although H. M. S. Surprise follows in the series – O’Brian did no flashbacks: the publication order of the books and the ostensible chronological order of the events described in them are the same, it certainly stands on its own as a novel. O’Brian doesn’t waste a lot of time recounting what has occurred in previous works.

Someone commented that O’Brian was better than C. S. Forester at putting himself into the mind of an eighteenth-century man. Indeed, having read both the Hornblower and the Aubrey-Maturin novels complete, I can attest that Hornblower is a 20th century man – someone Forester might have known, placed in scenes of the early 19th century. Jack Aubrey, the commander of H. M. S. Surprise, has much more of an 18th century mind. This is probably due to O’Brian’s reliance on the journals and letters of contemporary sea officers as a source for language and incident.

Looking at these two books as fictional presentations of men at war, the main difference between Drake and O’Brian, in my opinion, is that Drake’s characters tend to be haunted by the expedients to which they are forced. O’Brian’s have a greater ability to sit down with some wine, music, and toasted cheese, and let bygones be bygones.

Master of the Senate is the third volume in Robert Caro’s amazing biography of Lyndon Johnson. The project has already taken a few decades of Mr. Caro’s time, and I don’t know if he will outlive its completion. I had read the first two volumes – The Path to Power* and Means of Ascent** – years ago, when they were published, but I re-read them both before starting Master of the Senate. I was reading Robert Caro for a year, from February 2006 until February 2007. By the end, I felt as if I knew Lyndon Johnson as well as it is possible for one human being to know another. Caro is both critical of Johnson’s weaknesses, and some of his strengths, but in Master of the Senate he is portraying Johnson as a man in the perfect milieu. Had Johnson not been driven to become President, his mastery of the people and the institutions that are the United States Senate would have been the hallmark of his career.

This is, by the way, more than a biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro brings together a number of strands to form this story. He gives a brief, but very informative, history of the Senate itself, and the manner in which it had become a very powerful obstacle to social change. He provides a summary biography of Richard Russell of Georgia, a complex and powerful man. And, by using the Civil Rights Act of 1957 as the focus of the work, he reveals much about American society and its institutions at a time when it was under great pressure to change. The Civil Rights Act of 1957, for all its faults, showed Lyndon Johnson's ability to understand the forces at work in the Senate, and beyond, and to bring about a surprising result, and one with implications beyond the apparent.

* The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume I: The Path to Power. 1981, 1982. 882 pages.
** The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume II: Means of Ascent. 1990. 522 pages.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Knight's Reading List I: January 2007

I read quite a lot, and quite a variety, as well. Some of the books I read are well-known - some are even regarded as classics. On the other hand, some are pretty obscure, and many of those deserve their obscurity. Still, I get something out of almost every work I read, and I'd be happy to share my impressions of any book with others who find the title of interest. In these reading lists, I provide basic information on books which I finished in the month in question.

In January, 2007, I finished reading the following works:

Nevins, Allan. The Emergence of Lincoln, Volume II: Prologue to Civil War 1859-1861. 1950. viii + 524 pages, including Appendices, Bibliography, and Index.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd and the Piazza Tales. 2006. xliv + 338 pages.

O'Brian, Patrick. Post Captain. 1972. 496 pages

Appleyard, Dennis R. and Alfred J. Field, Jr. International Economics. xxvi + 822 pages, including Index.

Not my most productive month, January, though I could note that I was also reading four other books, which, however, I did not finish. (In fact, I have yet to finish The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.) I read a total of 1272 pages in eight books during the month.

Now, which would I recommend? On the fictional side of the ledger, Post Captain is an expertly composed and very entertaining, as well as thoroughly-researched, novel of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Melville's style, on the other hand, is not likely to be to everyone's taste, and some of the stories miss the mark. "Bartleby the Scrivener" makes very little sense, but "Benito Cereno" is pretty good. Unfortunately, Melville uses the denseness of his viewpoint characters to build suspense (but Conan Doyle has the same fault.)

International Economics is a textbook, and I would only recommend it to someone who really wants to gain a technical understanding of that field. Economics is a subject matter which relies on recent examples to demonstrate its currency (no pun intended.) I would buy something newer if I wanted to begin study of this subject.

Allan Nevins is, I think, one of the great historians of the 20th century, who wrote a long, multi-volume history of the origins of the Civil War and the war itself. (I have four of the volumes and have read three; I need to read the volume that comes before this one.) He tends to stress the economic side of the conflict and, with regard to the war, the North's advantage in material factors. This book provides really wonderful background to two others I'll mention later: Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals and Gore Vidal's Lincoln.

My Trip to Las Vegas

My wife Helen and I visited Las Vegas over the weekend. We left Colorado Springs on Saturday, November 10, and returned on Tuesday, November 13. We drove from Colorado Springs to Denver, and flew between Denver and Las Vegas on Southwest Airlines.

There are a number of reasons we fly from Denver more often than from here in Colorado Springs. On the one hand, while it is only a 40-minute drive to the Colorado Springs airport, it is only about 75 minutes to Denver International. In fact, made it home Tuesday night in just about an hour, counting from the time we left the Bennigan's on Tower Road where we ate dinner. The long-term parking is cheaper in Denver, too. Mostly, however, we find a larger selection of flights at convenient times, especially non-stop flights, and (in general) better prices out of Denver.

Let me continue with some notes from my journal:

Las Vegas deals in the outsize. Each of the larger casinos we've seen is like a small city, a shopping mall, a cruise ship. There are two million residents of Las Vegas, and God knows how many tourists, and all of them were on the Strip Saturday night. (Really! We were outdoors on the sidewalk to see the pirate ship act at Treasure Island, and the crowd was so dense I could hardly breathe.)

Like a cruise ship, each casino has accommodations for many people - thousands at the MGM Grand, Mirage, Venetian, etc. And, like cruise ships, they are essentially self-contained. One could live in Caesar's Palace for years without every going outside. That's because they share the cruise ship philosophy of providing something for every taste. Each hotel has multiple restaurants, in various price ranges, themes, and cuisines.

Some of these are - or seem to be - incongruous. At the Venetian, they tout a Chinese themed restaurant called Tao, with its own nightclub, gift shop, and other spin-offs. At the Mandalay Bay there is a House of Blues.

At Caesar's there are eight restaurants, plus eight more in the Forum Shops, plus the Cafe Lago buffet.

The Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace and the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian are quite large-scale, high-end shopping malls under artificial skies. Versace, Gucci, Kenneth Cole, and upscale retailers of all sorts rub elbows with shops purveying the most meretricious of souvenirs. (Probably the grossest T-shirt prize goes to one I saw at Harrah's: the slogan Danger: Choking Hazard surmounts a drawing of an erect penis and testicles.)

My sister Nancy pointed out that many, though by no means all, of the clothing items cannot be worn anywhere but in Las Vegas. If she bought a resortware dress or top, she would never find an occasion to wear it in Bellevue or Seattle.

Las Vegas is its own little world. The scale is so large, so grandiose, that one is returned to the old tales of the desert - the mountains that seem to recede as one approaches them. The Mirage is so large and brightly lit that one underestimates the distance to walk there from Treasure Island.

While we were there, they demolished the New Frontier in the middle of the night. Helen woke up to the sound of the explosions going off, and then heard the prolonged rumble of the building coming down.

Perhaps there's an irony in the fact that, while traveling, most of my reading was in Paul Theroux' The Old Patagonian Express, a travel book.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Commentaries on Foreign Affairs: "Iraq's Civil War"

Let me start by quoting the third paragraph, which seems to me to be the real lead, of James D. Fearon's article, "Iraq's Civil War," in the March/April 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs.

"In fact, there is a civil war in progress in Iraq, one comparate in important respects to other civil wars that have occurred in postcolonial states with weak political institutions. Those cases suggest that the Bush administration's political objective in Iraq - creating a stable, peaceful, somewhat democratic regime that can survive the departure of U.S. troops - is unrealistic. Given this unrealistic political objective, military strategy of any sort is doomed to fail almost regardless of whether the administration goes with the "surge" option, as President George W. Bush as proposed, or shifts toward a pure training mission, as advised by the Iraq Study Group." (Pages 2-3)

Mr. Fearon, a Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, goes into considerable detail in this article about the nature of recent civil wars, the likelihood of a military coup, and the failure of power-sharing arrangements. One interesting statement is this: "To avail itself of more attractive policy options, the Bush administration (or its successor) must break off its unconditional military support for the Shiite-dominated government that it helped bring to power in Baghdad." (Page 13) In line with this argument, he concludes:

"The more likely scenario is that the Bush administration's commitment to the 'success' of the Maliki government will make the United States passively complicit in a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing. Standing back to adopt a more evenhanded policy in the civil war already in progress is a more sensible and defensible course. To pursue it, the Bush administration or its successor would first have to give up on the idea that a few more U.S. brigates or a change in U.S. tactics will make for an Iraq that can, in President Bush's words, 'govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself' once U.S. troops are gone." (Page 15)

Readers will note that a number of events have occurred since the publication of Mr. Fearon's article. First, the "surge" has taken place, and is continuing. At some point the numbers of U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq will begin coming down, but that point is not yet. Second, whether the U.S. has become more "evenhanded" on the political level in Baghdad, U.S. forces have undertaken to cooperate with a number of Sunni tribal leaders on the local level. Third, I think it is becoming evident that there is a contradiction between our all-out support for a Shiite government and our hostility to Iran. And, finally, the Democrats in Congress have failed to force the Bush administration to make any major change in its "strategy" in Iraq. (I would prefer the word "tactics" because, as far as I can tell, the Bush administration has no strategy at all.) Moreover, the leading Democratic candidate, while committed to "ending the war," has no intention of pulling the U.S. out of Iraq in one fell swoop on January 21, 2009.

Now, given my criticisms of Mr. Bret Stephens and Mr. Arthur Herman for their positive fews of the military (and, to a degree, political) situation in Iraq, it may surprise my readers to discover that I think Mr. Fearon's argument has very little going for it. In fact, I think that his conclusion is entirely incorrect.

Indeed, as I stated in another place, the Iraqis have acquired the trappings of a democratic government, without an understanding of the need to share power, to tolerate differences, and to protect the rights of minorities while exercising the will of the majority. However, Mr. Fearon's argument is self-contradictory. On the one hand, he says that powersharing arrangements, however well-intentioned, have seldom worked in modern civil wars. (I might say that I find this obvious: If a group has geared itself up to the point of going to war, it is unlikely to consider its objectives so unimportant, or its enmities so trivial, that it can sacrifice both friends and principles in a trice.) Consistent with this, he says that U.S. efforts to encourage powersharing have been failures. Obviously then, he would support the U.S. backing one side or the other, and not trying to make them kiss and make up.

On the contrary, he then attacks the U.S. for the probability that support of the Shiite regime will involve us in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. And he then advocates that we "step back" from the Maliki government and "adopt a more evenhanded policy."

Here's the way I see it. The reasons that we have a civil war in Iraq are many and complex but, at bottom, the reasons that the minority Sunnis are willing to risk all in openly fighting the government are two-fold: 1) they believe that they will be badly treated by the Shiites and, 2) they also believe that they, with superior military traditions, can at least hold their own against the government. The only way to disabuse them of this fantasy is to back the Shiites to ensure that they achieve a decisive victory over the Sunnis, as soon as possible, so that the Sunnis will realize the necessity of entering into the political process. Weakening the Maliki government, opposing the Shiites, and arming the Sunnis, will merely prolong the violence and postpone the day of reckoning. Moreover, the longer it takes for the Shiite government to subdue the Sunnis, the more a thirst for vengeance is likely to lead to ethnic cleansing.

In this case, Mr. Fearon has it just backwards.

I would encourage you all, by the way, to read Mr. Fearon's article. I find it interesting that a man who is obviously intelligent and well-informed could be both illogical and wrongheaded on a matter to which he has devoted quite a bit of thought.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Commentaries on Commentary: "How to Win in Iraq - and How to Lose"

Arthur Herman, in "How to Win in Iraq - and How to Lose," Commentary, April 2007, pages 23-28, takes the familiar position that the war in Iraq is being won militarily, but that the politicians may snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. As Herman puts it, "if the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis still continues and is showing signs of improvement, the battle for the hearts and minds of Congress, or at least of the Democratic majority, seems to be all but over."

Herman then takes up an extended discussion the war in Algeria (1954-1962), and the work of David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. I have, by the way, just finished reading Alistair Horne's classic history of the Algerian war, A Savage War of Peace, which was first published in 1977, and which was reissued in 2006 with some new notes and material. Many of the details of the incidents to which Herman alludes in this article are described at length in Horne's work.

Herman is quite correct that the French army, with the use of such principles as concentration of force, defeated the FLN (Front de Liberation National), and its military arm again and again. In particular, the Morice line, named after a French Minister of Defense, closed the border with Tunisia, and prevented the ALN from reinforcing the suffering cadres in the wilayas.

Some of these principles are, as Herman says, important in the context of Iraq. Some of the steps taken by General Petraeus have applied some effective measures to the problems of defeating and eliminating certain anti-government or anti-American forces. The fact that Iraq lacks an equivalent of the Morice line to prevent infiltration of personnel and weapons from Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, is the source of many of the problems the American forces face in Iraq.

Herman takes the position that the war in Algeria was, in the end, lost because left-wing politicians in France forced the government to abandon a victorious army just as the war was won. He also mentions the similar example of Vietnam. And so, he concludes, there is a terrible danger that "feckless politicians" may pull the plug on the Army's latest initiative in Iraq before it has had a chance to work.

I have a couple of problems with this sort of article. The "stab in the back" theme has been trotted out ever since the American Revolution. (Cornwallis had the war just about won, but the Ministry wouldn't send any more troops after he suffered a temporary setback at Yorktown.) The most famous "stab in the back" was that administered to the German army in 1918 by the liberal (and Jewish) politicians, who betrayed the soldiers and the Kaiser. The story of the stab in the back gained a certain credibility from the fact that the German army surrendered while still occupying large sections of France and Belgium. The German public did not see how shattered the military was after the ultimate failure of the last great German offensive in March, 1918, and the Allied attacks later that year. Moreover, Germany's allies had gone under, the blockade had driven the German population to near-starvation rations, and the increasing numbers of American soldiers and Marines, who could not be matched by fresh levies of Germans, all meant that the Germans must inevitably lose.

Vietnam is an interesting case. There are many people who feel that political interference caused many problems during the war. Certainly a case can be made that the Tet Offensive of January 1968 was a defeat for the Viet Cong. I would argue that Tet was a terrible defeat for the U.S. military in Vietnam, and its political leadership on the following counts: First, it was obviously a terrible surprise to everyone in Saigon, betraying the failure of military intelligence after seven years of continuous presence in the country. Second, the Vietnamese forces were must stronger than any of the MACV estimates would have led one to believe. This was not only another intelligence failure, but cast doubt on (at least), previous reports of numbers of the enemy killed, of the success of the interdiction of reinforcements and supplies through Laos, and of the reliability of South Vietnamese (ARVN) forces. Third, it demonstrated that the Vietnamese were not going to give up.

It has always been the case in warfare that, under certain circumstances, the winner is the side that refuses to concede defeat. In the days when the winner of a battle was determined by which side controlled the battlefield at the end of the day, the side which was too stubborn to retreat could end up claiming a victory. One can argue, for example, that, had General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker not retreated after the battle of Chancellorsville, that fight would have been recorded as a Union, rather than a Confederate victory.

Horne makes the point that the FLN never changed its goals, never backed away from its demands, never conceded anything. In the end, the war in Algeria was too expensive. It was preventing the modernization of the French army and economy, it was diverting too much energy and manpower away from Europe, and the game was simply not worth the candle for the French. Certainly, from the time the Algerian war ended, France entered upon a period of rapid economic growth and modernization.

In the end, the dictum of Clausewitz is still with us: War is the continuation of politics by other means. The idea that one can have a military victory and a political defeat is nonsense. The only way to have that appear to occur, is if the military has been misinformed of, or has misunderstood, the political goals. It is the accomplishment of those goals, not military advances and retreats, which denotes victory.