Saturday, April 30, 2011

Chapter 2: A Day in Žepa (6/6)


April 2006

“Your English is excellent, much better than mine. I’m envious.”  Drago leaned forward in his black leather chair, took a Cuban from a pewter box, clipped the end with a cigar guillotine, sniffed it, and sat back.  “I like Abba.  Do you like Abba?  Probably, huh?”

“Uh, yes, they’re good…but I’m Danish, not Swedish,” replied the investigative reporter for a popular television news magazine.  He was trying to get Drago to cooperate for a television interview and not having much luck.  It would air in a few days across Europe.

“Yes, yes. Denmark.  I like the cartoons, eh?  Muhammad was a pedophile, you know.” Drago was referring to the 2005 controversial depictions of the Prophet printed in a Danish magazine. They set off a series of violent protests in the Islamic world. In Drago’s mind this incident was a perfect topic for the interview. Surely the torching of Danish flags by crazed fundamentalists would make the point: we Serbs are Europe’s defense. The journalist didn't respond. Later, on the cutting room floor, the producer decided not to use this part of the interview, even if they had wanted incriminating words from Drago.

“Let’s see,” Drago went on. “Denmark. To be or not to be.  Isn’t that right?”

“That’s Shakespeare.”

“Yes, but he was a Dane. Hamlet, I mean.”

Drago acted like the gentleman he never was nor ever would be; however, his postwar political clout and prosperous chain of luxury hotels brought him status that, he firmly believed, was commensurate with his superior natural gifts.

“No, that’s true,” replied the reporter, who was clearly growing weary of Drago's banter.

“Now what is it you would like to ask me?”

The Dane turned to his crew. “Start shooting!” The reporter was anxious to get on with the interview. Drago had spent almost two hours showing him and the producer his spacious villa, located conspicuously on the corner of a major thoroughfare in Belgrade. A tour of the house would be a nice way to start the segment, they agreed, but Drago had exhausted them with stories of his exploits as he showed him his war memorabilia and personal gym.

He was proud of his home and claimed to have designed and built it himself. His beautiful wife, Nadia, a local celebrity and daughter of a Serbian kingpin, was a gracious host, though clearly submissive to Drago’s whim. During the filming she seemed relegated to the pool lounge, sipping cocktails, and watching television shows in a silky robe that barely managed to cover her enormous breast job.

Some rooms were evidently off limits.  “What about these doors here?” asked the Danish reporter as they were walking through a basement corridor to the “East Wing.”

Drago seemed peeved.  “Those are just guestrooms.”

The reporter’s imagination ran wild. Guestrooms in the basement? Are these war rooms? Are there weapons stored in there or girls nabbed for sexual trafficking?

By the time they set up the lights and cameras for the interview in his office, the crew, which included two Danes and a Czech makeup artist, was exhausted.

“Are you concerned about threats on your life or an army of commandos swooping down on you at any time.  You do things so publicly.  We sit here in your nice office.  You have a line of luxurious hotels in Serbia and Bosnia.  You seem quite comfortable and content.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Interpol, the EU, and others are talking about arresting you.  The tribunal in The Hague issued an indictment on you five years ago or so.  They say you are a cold-blooded murderer and that you and your men executed civilians and raped Muslim women. In fact, some of these charges predate the war.   It’s alleged that…”

“Ridiculous,” cut in Drago. “I have nothing to hide.”

“As you know, almost all of the Serb leadership who participated in the Bosnian War have been captured or died: President Milošević, Karadžić, Šeŝelji, Biljana Plavšić, Arkan, and the list goes on.  They’re closing in on General Mladic, it is said.”

Who says? They won’t find him.  There’d be another war.”

“Is that a veiled threat?”

“No, no.  An unveiled fact.”

“Our sources say that you've provided him body guards to protect him 24/7.”

“Rubbish...though it's true that we provided security for him almost a decade ago now.”

“Did you torture civilians during the war?”

“No.”  Drago shook his head and chuckled.  “What is it with you Western journalists?”  He continued in a slightly different vein.  “You need some bogeyman, someone to kick in the mud.  You tire of atrocities in Africa, so you pick on Serbia, your whipping boy.”  He pounded the desktop for effect.

“I’m not a monster, no matter how hard you try to make me one in your image.”  Drago all of a sudden realized he had perhaps given the reporter his sound bite, a headline reading I’m not Monster.

“Wait, don’t use that film footage.”  One of Drago’s bodyguards standing in the corner of the room nodded his head to the reporter as a subtle warning.

“I understand,” the reporter responded.  “We agreed to let you see our piece after editing, and it won’t be there.”

“Good.”

“What about the alleged rapes?  Any truth to that?”

“Absolutely not.  As you say, they're alleged, but not true.  Let me ask you something, my Danish friend.  If one of those Muslim bastards—Green Warriors they called themselves—killed your brother and raped your sister, what would you do?”

“I wouldn’t kill innocent people, I should think.”

“No, no.  Nor would I.”

“The war ended a decade ago.”  The reporter wanted to stay on task.  “It looks like Serbia wants to move on and join the European Union.  The nationalists are losing influence in the new ten-party coalition in Belgrade.  You are in fact on the EU’s list of—and I use their words, not mine—criminals for extradition to The Hague.”

“Yes, I know.  It’s crazy.”  Drago lit up his cigar.  He opened the desk drawer of his mahogany desk and pulled out a metallic object.  Behind him were shelves of handsome books he had never read.

“See this?  It means a lot to me.  Get the camera in close here.”  He pointed to an inscription.  “The football club I owned prior to the war won the regional UEFA cup.  Good players.  Most of them were killed in the war.”

“Do you feel responsible for their deaths?”

“I feel responsible for their families, if that’s what you mean.  I take care of my men.  They were brave warriors.   They fought defending their country.”

“Okay, now if I can get back to…”

“I hear they’re going to make a movie about the Demons,” Drago interrupted.  He wasn’t finished, and everything was to be in accordance with his agenda.  A Belgrade production company was in fact floating the idea of a film. 

“Do you want such a movie?”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s alleged that you committed crimes and perhaps even genocide during the war.”

“There you go again.  Absolutely false.  Absolutely!”  For just a flash of a second, one could see the darker Drago penetrate through the jovial, amiable demeanor that he had learned to cultivate in a life of deception and fraud.  “I think it’s a good idea. It would show what real men, real Serbs, do in a crisis situation, yeah? I don’t consider myself a hero at all.  That’s for others to decide, and, well, many seem to think so.  But audiences, and not just here in Serbia, should see the heroic acts of my men portrayed on the screen, huh?  Besides, I think my life is quite interesting.”

“Who would you want to play you?” asked the reporter, figuring that this sideshow still might reveal the true character of Drago to viewers.

“I’m making my recommendations to the director, but I don’t wish to disclose that now.  It’s a surprise.”

The reporter had had enough of Drago’s self-righteousness.  “Are you worried that your hotel business, your wealth, your glamorous lifestyle, hobnobbing with models and pop stars, will come crashing down?”  The interviewer looked over at Drago’s bodyguard to see if the gravity of his boss's situation would at least resonate with him.  He got nothing but a cold blank stare.

“I enjoy life.  What’s the crime there?  And don’t mislead your viewers about the models.  I’m faithful to my wife.”  The reporter had inside knowledge that belied this statement.

Drago looked directly into the camera.  “Hello, by the way.”

“I have to ask you,” the reporter said nervously, “whether you’re a nationalist or a thug.”  The Dane knew that careers in the journalism depend on daring questions, but he felt he might be taking his life in his hands with such daring.

Drago flipped open the lid of his cigar box and directed the cameraman to get a close-up of it.  “Here, get in right here.”  The box depicted the Serbian emblem of a bicephalic eagle. “This is why I fight….for freedom and the defense of my people, our land, our destiny.  You call me a thug?  Well, maybe some people think this about me, corrupt politicians and self-righteous pundits in Western countries.  They lack an understanding of history.  Don’t be fooled by these hypocrites.”

“You showed me the security system to your home,” remarked the reporter, changing gears slightly.

“Yes.”

“Do you fear that someone might try to kill you?”

The reporter was alluding to an assassination attempt on Drago at a pizzeria in Zvornik nearly a month prior.  The police didn’t find the assassins, but it was understood by everyone that elements in the Serbian mafia, unhappy with Drago’s lack of loyalty, sought both revenge and the protection of its business interests.  There had been speculation that he had found and killed those who were responsible, but he of course kept this fact away from the public eye to protect his informants.

“I fear nothing.  These people, whoever they are, will not succeed.  Never.”

“Are you worried about being arrested?  You’re a wanted man. What if police forces were to arrest you?”

“You talk foolishly.  This won't happen.” As it turns out the Danish reporter’s words were prescient, for three weeks later, on April 19, EUFOR and Serbian police nabbed him, Lukić and Krajiŝnik in a joint commando operation that occurred simultaneously in two locations: Zvornik and Dubrovnik.  A bullet grazed the ear of one of the commandos, as Nadia quickly seized a pistol from the glove compartment and shot off a round.  Otherwise, the carefully-planned operation went surprisingly without a hitch.

Drago ignored the question. He stood up, walked toward a round table, and lifted the stopper off a lead crystal decanter.  “Care for a drink?”

The film crew took him up on the offer, considering the grueling day in Belgrade and the efforts they had put in trying to get a decent interview. Drago, not fully appreciative of the journalist’s intention, was hoping to uplift his profile across Europe and show a more human side; for their part, the reporter and his producer aimed to show an arrogant and evil man living a decadent life, unrepentant of the suffering he caused innocent victims of the war.

Later that evening, as arranged, the film crew followed Drago to a rock concert where his favorite Serbian band was playing. His wife barely left much to the imagination in a revealing dress, only a mink fur partially covering her generous cleavage. They were quite the celebrities and once the band caught wind of their presence, the vocalist called out Drago's name.  To honor his appearance, and to make an impression on the foreign film crew they observed trailing him, they kicked into a heavy metal version of Marš na Drinu, a World War I era march. When the drummer hit the introductory marshal notes on his snare and cymbals, the crowd went wild, as if it were suddenly a Red Star Belgrade match. The front man, Brogan, with bushy beard and straggly hair, looked like a cross between a young Ian Anderson and a Chetnik. “Kosovo is Serbia!” he exclaimed to a highly responsive crowd. He held up a clenched first and belted out the time-honored lyrics with sweat streaming down his forehead:
Sing, sing, Drina, tell the generations,
How we bravely fought
The guitar’s power chords sliced through the concert hall like a bayonet. The mixture of metal and an anthemic march couldn’t help but strike the Danish film crew as rather cheesy. The predominantly male audience clapped exuberantly to the beat of the pounding bass drum. With a smile as wide as the Adriatic, Drago and a new postwar generation of Serbian youths shared a euphoric moment of national unity; everyone was ready to defend hearth and home against their persecutors.

The soldiers sang, the battle was fought
Near the cold water
Having draped himself in a tricolor banner thrown up on stage, Brogan turned the microphone out to the crowd, an energized mass of inebriated patriots.  The film crew looked at one another in puzzlement. When do metal heads bring flags to concerts?  Drago reached out to some youths to sing arm in arm before the camera. His obsequious wife stood to the side and looked on proudly with her hands clasped.

Blood was flowing
Blood was streaming by the Drina for freedom
Ironically, Drago lost his freedom on the bank of the Drina.  En route to his hotel in Zvornik for a business meeting, Drago drove into a trap set by EUFOR commandos.  An Eagle B-Hunter UAV on loan from NATO had been tracking the movements of his navy blue Lexus.  A Land Rover with bodyguards followed about 200 meters back.  The commandos disabled the vehicles with spikes in the road and managed to cut off the Land Rover from the Lexus by ramming into it with weapons drawn. Drago’s men were too stunned to react. Their leader exited his vehicle, leaving the driver behind, and made for straight for a cluster of trees not far from the cross-border river bridge.  Fortunately for his captors, Drago was unarmed for the first time in his adult life. They spirited him secretly out of the country with the complicity of Serbian police forces. Drago was already in The Hague before his family and business associates knew what had happened.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Chapter 2: A Day in Žepa (4/6)

Krajiŝnik, with both his AK-47 and the boy’s hunting rifle slung on his back, held his juvenile captive firmly in a neck lock, practically dragging him out the front door and onto the rutted road that separated the house where the boy hid himself from the tavern.

“Don’t shoot him,” said Vučinić, the tavern keeper, looking on from the shattered window.  “I knew his parents.  He’s a Serb.”

“Oh, is he?  I'll determine who’s a Serb today,” responded a scowling Drago, as he stormed out of the tavern into the middle of the road, a few of his men trailing behind him.  Although Žepa was a Bosniak Muslim enclave, it contained a handful of ethnic Serb residents, some of whom even helped defend the town as the Drina Corps and Drago’s Demons were closing in on it.  The hapless boy was evidently one of them.

“Bring him to me, Željko.”  Krajiŝnik let loose his squirming prisoner.  Finally out of the head lock, the boy, ruddy-faced and momentarily dazed, probably considered making a run for it but correctly calculated his chances.

Drago towered over the boy, eyeing him up and down.  He ignored Krajiŝnik and a few other men gathering around and cursing the young would-be assassin.  With  a studied look, Drago bit his lower lip as he placed his arms akimbo.  He saw in the kid’s defiant face his own lost youth and waved his men away.  “What is your name?”  The boy remained silent.  “Speak up or I’ll shoot you in the mouth.”

“Goran…Goran Tadišić.”

“Goran Tadišić,” echoed Drago, elongating the pronunciation to himself.  “That’s a good Serbian name, huh?  You get in trouble around here for a name like that?  And where did you get this rifle?”  The boy didn’t respond; he just looked around anxiously at the bedraggled women sitting on the ground near SUVs in the distance.

“Where are your parents?”

“They died a few months ago.”

“I can assure you that my men had nothing to do with that.  You understand.”  The latter statement was not a question.  With Drago's eyes burning into him, the boy nodded.  “We live far from here.  Brčko.  You know Brčko?”  The boy shook his head.

“Did Rambo, Rambo Osman, tell you to shoot at us?”  The boy’s face didn’t register the name.

“Ahmet Hadžić?”  Drago mentioned Rambo's real name to see if the boy understood.  Nothing.

“He doesn’t know that asshole, Drago,” said Lukić.  “No one does!  Rambo’s a nobody with a big mouth.  That’s all.”

“You got that right, Miko.”  Drago looked around for a moment, as if suddenly reminded of the 'mission' and the short time remaining to carry it out.  “We’re moving out!” he called out to his men.  “We've been here long enough.  This little man is keeping us on our toes, and on task.”

“Some of the prisoners are taking a piss.”

“Shit.  Those bitches.  Okay.  Hurry it up!  We have a football match ahead of us, do we not?”  Again, Drago referred to the male prisoners rounded up earlier in cryptic language, and his lieutenant, Miko Lukić, was quick to play along.

“Yeah, and the losing team is already lined up!”  The two men laughed like schoolboys up to no good.

As the Demon paramilitaries scurried to their vehicles and started up the engines, Drago led the boy to his Land Rover.  Turning to him, Drago exhibited the same unsettling mixture of coldness and cordiality that both his men and and his enemies knew all too well.  “Don't try to run, or I'll shoot you.”  He saw the boy looking at his reflection in the glossy blue finish of the SUV.  “Like my car?  Compliments of the international community.”

“Listen, Goran Tadišić, if you want to be a sniper, you need to brace the weapon like this, huh?”  Drago flexed his long, sinewy forearms.  “And you’ll need a scope.  You only scratched one of my men with your bullets.”  Miloš, the one who had been guarding the women in the basement, stood nearby with a nicked ear, bloody cloth in hand, trying to hide his anger at Drago's comment.

“I will make you one of my adjutants.  You will get to wear this patch on your shoulder, huh?  That’s cool, no?  It’s a picture of a demon because we come from hell.  I designed it myself.”  In actuality Drago stole the fanciful image wholesale from a motorcycle gang in Bulgaria.

“Miko, get him a flak jacket.  The boy will ride in my vehicle.”  Lukić gave Drago a look.  What the hell?  “Why not?” Drago shrugged.  “We have to look toward the future sometimes, Miko, not just the present.”

“Okay,” came his friend's laconic response.  Lukić was of course involved in his own “youth program” before, during, and after the warnamely, the trafficking of girls and young women to the highest bidders in Turkey and the Caucasus.

Drago then looked at the boy with a hardened face and warned, “Don’t you ever shoot at me or my men again,” only to lighten up immediately thereafter.  “For we are all fellow demon warriors now.”  Drago's studious demeanor returned like the flick of a switch.  “We shall call you Princip, for you will be our assassin someday.  Miko!  You teach this boy what you know, huh?”  Lukić took a final drag of his cigarette, flicked it to the ground, and nodded.  Had his dashed aspirations to shoot in the 1992 Olympics come to this?  He wondered.

The five-vehicle convoy was again on its way toward a bloody destination.  A few kilometers from the town they spotted an old Muslim woman in a pale blue headscarf, alone, bracing herself up with a wooden cane at the side of the road.   The strange sight provided a moment of levity for Drago’s men as they drove by.  “Go home, grandma!  You bitch!”  Her singularity, odd stance,  and the expressionless expression on her face would provide an abundant source of humor after the executions, perhaps an image less funny than warranted but a way of distracting Drago’s men from talking about the dark deeds they were about to perform.

Further up the road the driver of the rear vehicle, Krajiŝnik, saw two male figures off to the right side, barely visible were it not for an orange t-shirt that one of them was wearing.  Able-bodied males had to be pursued.  The two figures suddenly froze like deer ready to shoot off into the woods.  It had been too late for them to hide as the vehicles zipped around the corner.  A middle-aged man was wearing a polyester shirt and vest and carrying a small brown suitcase.  Next to him was a boy with a rucksack on his back.  They instantly disappeared into the brush. 

Krajiŝnik and Lukić, not bothering with the radio communications, pressed on the horn to stop the convoy, jumped out of their vehicle, and ran lightening-speed to Drago who by this time had spotted the two individuals as well.  “We’re on it!” yelled Krajiŝnik to the Demon leader.

“Go!  Hurry!” came Drago’s response.  “You!” Drago motioned to a third soldier named Miljević.  “Move!”  Firearm drawn, the young man charged into the woods behind the other two.

Sweating profusely in the summer heat, the man and boy ran into a clearing on the other side of the woods from the road.  Their heavy breathing and muffled steps through the brushwood broke the calm of the countryside.  Overhead a blue-grey sky with patches of clouds looked indifferently over the predator and prey below.

“Hurry, papa!  Please!” The boy's father was trailing behind and wheezing.  They knew the clearing wasn’t the best place to lose their pursuers, so they made a dash for the nearest tree line.

Having left his assault rifle behind, Krajiŝnik brandished a knife in one hand and a pistol in the other.  He was thoroughly enjoying the pursuit, especially knowing that the Zvornik Brigade had already conducted a sweep operation and he didn't have to worry about armed Muslims in the area.

The man and his son chanced upon an old mining compound probably abandoned in the 1970s and dating back to the Austro-Hungarian empire.  At the entrance to a dilapidated building near the gated entrance, the man nearly collapsed from exhaustion.  He realized it was hopeless for him.  “Go!” he cried to his son.  “Run!  I’ll hide in here,” he gasped, stooping over with his hands braced on his knees.  The boy turned back to his father, but the latter was insistent.  “Run, damn it, run!”

While the convoy had come to a standstill on the road, Drago received a radio communication from the Drina Corps commander, General Krstić.  He had recently returned to duty only weeks ago after undergoing physical therapy for a severe landmine injury that cost him his right leg.  Like his superior, General Ratko Mladić, he was bent on revenge.  He would have the dubious distinction of becoming the first person of the Bosnian War convicted of genocide in the International Criminal Tribunal in the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

“Where are you?  Have you taken care of the operation at the soccer field?”

“Sir, we are on our way!”

“My men reported gunfire in the last half hour.  What’s that about?”

“A couple enemy combatants in the area.  We dispatched them, sir.  No casualties on our side.”  Drago mentioned neither Princip nor the women.

“What’s your soldier accountability and how many vehicles have you?”  Drago knew the general and deputy commander were in the process of requisitioning buses and trucks to transport civilian captives away from the eyes of demoralized UN troops and to their appointed fate.  He didn’t want to lose any of his vehicles for this operation.

“Sir, we’re currently at eighteen men,” he lied, “and we’re stuffed into five SUVs.  We have no armored cars.”  Drago couldn’t lie about the number of vehicles; he was keenly aware that they his superiors could watch his movements from an observation post overlooking the valley.  The general knew he was lying, but he bridled his tongue out of respect for the civilian man with aphasia standing next to him.

“Hold on, soldier.”  The general gave the man the radio.   He asked Drago how he was holding up and ended the transmission once he got a reply.

Meanwhile, in the woods, Drago’s men came upon the mining compound soon enough.  Krajiŝnik, with a nose for the hunt, motioned for Lukić and Miljević to continue on, suspecting rightly that his prey had split up and one of them remained in the shack that stood before him.  He sheathed his knife and slowly entered the structure toting his sidearm.

Hiding behind an inner door of the building, the father noticed that part of his suitcase was partially visible from the entrance and a tell-tale sign of his presence.  He tried to pick it up, gently and slowly, but the handle made a click sound.  Once Krajiŝnik heard it, he simply fired a few rounds into the door.  When the bloodstained man staggered out, Krajiŝnik walked toward him and shot him again at point-blank range through the nose.  The back of the man’s head exploded upon the bullet’s impact, causing blood to gush onto the dusty, wooden floor even before his lifeless body slumped back against the wall. 

“Fuck!” exclaimed  Krajiŝnik.  Blood and bits of flesh sprayed onto the right side of his face, his arm, and his chest.  He liked the idea of returning to the convoy to show the men evidence of his handiwork, but he didn’t care for such a mess.

He went back to the entrance door to make a brief scan of the area, in the event the boy was hiding outside nearby, and then returned to his victim.  The suitcase was open next to the body.  Returning the pistol to his leg holster, he hunched down and started to rifle through it for valuables.  He found articles of clothing, family photos, and other personal affects that would have only sentimental value, but no money.  Krajiŝnik cursed at his unresponsive victim, as blood continued to ooze from the corpse’s disfigured face.  “Fuck your green mother!”  He uttered even worse profanities when he realized his knee and pant leg were touching the crimson puddle.

Just when he thought the cigarette lighter he pocketed would be his only consolation prize, Krajiŝnik espied a wad of Yugoslav dinar banknotes held together by a rubber band in the inner pocket of the man’s vest.  He thumbed through them hastily, fishing out a couple of 20 Deutsche Mark bills from what he assumed were mostly low banknotes, before tossing the stash into the pool of blood.  Had he looked more carefully, he would have discovered that the center bill was a 5,000 dinar banknote.  While Krajiŝnik exited the old building, a bespectacled Marshal Tito looked on in a thoughtful gaze as the maroon edges of the bill seeped in on him.

Drago turned to Princip, who was sitting in the backseat of the SUV with the window rolled down.  He had been pacing back and forth outside the vehicle.  “Don’t fight for these bastards,” he said, shaking his head and straining his eyes.  “And those women you see,” he continued, angling his head toward the vehicles, “are nothing but breeders to infest our land, the land God has given us.  You’re too young to know better.  It’s about family, blood—it’s about protecting what is dear to you.”  He glanced at Princip’s face to see if he was paying attention to this impromptu lesson in Serbian patriotism and loyalty.  Why exactly he took interest in Princip isn’t clear. Perhaps he was doing his part to realize a Greater Serbia by recruiting the next generation into the nationalist struggle.

Suddenly gunfire crackled in the distance.  Drago raised his head up with thoughtful countenance, recognizing the shots as coming from Krajisnik’s sidearm.

One of the men yelled out, “Hey, Drago, this bitch bit me!” Drago caught himself about to respond with a playful remark about socking the woman in the face, but he refrained; he was trying to make an impression on the boy.

“Don’t let this coexistence of peoples trick you, huh?  The short life you’ve lived is not what it appears to be.  Those people hate you.  They hate me.  What did they do to my grandfather? They butchered him so savagely…what you see here, the thing we do...it’s nothing compared to their crimes.”  Drago, like his compatriots, had convinced himself of this dubious script.  The lecture on hating thy neighbor came to a conclusion as an armored Jeep pulled up. A thin 30-something man with long hair approached Drago’s Land Rover.

“Who’s the boy?” he asked.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In the Name of Hate

Hitler was born on this day in 1889, an occasion for celebration for neo-Nazi skinheads, Aryan supremacist groups, and other reprobates who depise Jews, Africans, Asians, and, well, the list goes on.  His evil legacy will live on throughout the centuries, long after our demise.  He’ll always remind us of the power of hate, how it consumes and devours everything in its path given opportunity and resources.  His inimitable image also invokes the devotion to a perverse idea of world domination and the annihilation of a people, many peoples in factan unwavering commitment to a supposed higher goal of perfection devoid of conventional morality and fed by conquest.  Let us reflect briefly on the dark side of humanity and the forces that can inspire and then unleash our homocidal potentional, for Hitler was not alone in what he did.  Let us also be mindful that killing of such magnitude does not come about through a sudden outburst of anger and passion.  Instead, it’s systematic and rational.  It requires careful planning and cost-benefit analysis.  Once we've so reflected on such loathsome deeds and what they imply for humankindbeing brief about it so as not to get discouragedlet us continue about our business of love and kindness to one another.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Following the Dream or the Pocketbook?

Yesterday I accepted an offer to teach as a lecturer at a state university starting in the fall of 2011.  I've been teaching one class for this institution this spring semester on a part-time, temporary basis.  It’s not the most lucrative job in the world,  but I had to balance out what I like to do and what I have expertise in with the dictates of bills and debts that need constant attention.  C’est la vie.  I had been giving serious consideration to leaving academic life altogether and working in the military contract industry.

What appealed to me is the warm reception of the faculty and their respect, even for a crusty Army Reservist who has shed his pusillanimous “academese” bearing over the years in exchange for a more authoritative, roll-with-the-punches demeanor.  (I’m fairly certain they know from the grapevine that I’m in the Army, even if I don’t brandish my military credentials when in the corridors of academia).  Also, I have the freedom to create my own courses, pending the approval of the Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs who seems to trust my judgment and ability.  Lastly, this position has the potential of leading toward better prospects.  All too often, however, I’ve found that there’s no guarantee in life.  I worked tirelessly for two other universities for years, commiting myself to the students’ academic wellbeing, improving my skills as an instructor, and churning out a few publications with their institution printed under my name.  These were great experiences, but they didn’t yield the normal career that I sought so ardently.  Anyway, beggars can’t be choosers, especially with the economic woes our nation currently faces.  I look forward to this new job and will count my blessings, even if it doesn’t ultimately lead to a career.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Conflict and Resolution in Ivory Coast

There is no easy solution to genocide and other forms of mass violence in today’s multifarious hotspots. If there were, Rwanda and Srebrenica and Darfur would not have happened. One thing is for sure, though, and that’s the need for political resolve backed with the credible threat of military intervention from the international community. There must be demonstrably averse consequences for dictators who cling to power and send out their thugs to rape, loot and murder when things don’t go their way.  Easier said than done.  Perhaps the end of the conflict in Ivory Coast last week offers a case study of relative decisiveness in stopping violence. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the killing and raping have indeed ceased.

Until last week, a civil war raged in Ivory Coast that has claimed the lives of roughly 1,500 Ivorians, thanks to the former president Laurent Gbagbo refusing to step down after losing an election months ago.  The incoming president Alassane Ouattara had sent forces in to root him out of Abidjan, the country’s main city.  A defiant Gbagbo had holed himself up in a bunker under the presidential residence as troops who remained loyal to him committed atrocities against the civilian populace.  Well, in a decisive move that did not distinguish his predecessors, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signed off on providing air support for Ouattara’s troops bent on capturing Gbagbo.  To be sure, the fact that Gbagbo's forces fired artillery and mortar rounds into the UN compound stiffened his resolve.  UN peacekeepers were involved in the attack, but la force Licorne, or the French contingent in support of the long-running Operation Unicorn that had been established in the beleaguered West African country since the first civil war of 2002-2004, provided the real muscle with attack helicopters, tanks and armored personnel carriers.  As the former colonial power in this region, France has had a vested interest in maintaining stability.

Althought Gbagbo is now in custody, as of April 11, things are far from over.  The new president must treat his prisoner with respect, lest Gbagbo’s many supporters rise up and take revenge, especially considering the fact that Ouattaras troops also commited atrocities in this conflict.  Gbagbo's right cheek shows evidence of some roughing up by his captors, but hopefully we won't have business as usual: gruesome torture caught on film, as had been the case in the country's northern neighbors, Liberia and Sierra Leone.  Will anything happen to them?  Probably not.

Ivory Coast had a few things going for it for an international response.  First, it’s a relatively small country.  Second, the French keep an eagle eye on their former colonies.  Finally, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union gave full support to the election results, cutting off Gbagbo’s funding and basically disowning him.  If only African leaders demonstrated such disapproval for other dictators on the continent!  Nevertheless, one of the solutions to preventing genocidal massacres in the world is the active involvement of regional associations of states such as ECOWAS, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the Arab League.  The last of these, for instance, has finally turned against Muammar Gaddafi after looking the other way for years and thus laying crucial groundwork for a legitimized NATO air campaign aimed at helping the Libyan rebels.  Relying on the United Nations or superpowers to police local conflicts usually doesn’t work and sometimes makes thing worse.  Again, Bosnia and Rwanda cast their long shadow.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

On Solitude

“Room 228 this time around, sir.”  The hotel clerk offered me a polite smile as she slid the key card across the counter toward me.  She’s used to my arrival in the lobby every other week or so.  She already knew that I wanted a relatively quiet room tucked away on the second floor.  I got a puzzled look the first time when I said I wanted something "far from the madding crowd."  Memo to self: literary allusions need the right audience in order to work.  You see, I teach various college history courses at satellite campuses for two universities, sometimes far from home, and, when coupled with military drill weekends and Army training courses throughout the states, overnight stays in hotels has become a routine for me.

I can tell the clerk is mildly curious as to who I am and what I do.  Why do I show up every few weeks?  I don’t volunteer much information.  Why should I?  I’m a private person, notwithstanding the fact that I joined Facebook last September against my better judgment.  She can think I’m a serial killer for all I care.  For the record, though, I’m decidedly not a serial killer.  I’m usually wearing my grey Army sweatshirt, a kind of security blanket for me these days.  Perhaps she or the other front desk clerk with whom I’ve interacted at this hotel thinks I’m doing top security work for the military and assumes that I can’t talk about it.  Well, that’s how my mind works anyway.  I like to embellish my mundane life with such flights of fantasy.  I’m no doubt revealing a narcissistic streak in attributing to the hotel clerk an inordinate amount of curiosity about me.

Once I enter the hotel room, it’s business as usual.  I turn on CNN and get my laptop connected to wireless before anything else.  Then I unpack my things and perhaps brush my teeth.  If I’m in my disciplined and healthy mode, I’ll crank out some sit-ups and push-ups on my yoga mat, get a cup of hotel room coffee going, take a nice hot shower, and then grade papers or create a game plan for my next class.  If I’m feeling rather lethargic or lugubrious, I’ll partake of some Mexican Coke and my flask of whiskey, an indulgence which is usually prelude to losing myself in a novel or watching one of those murder mystery shows like 48 Hours Mystery or Dateline.  Whatever I do, I’ll end up just sitting there in the hotel room, in solitude.

Hobbes famously wrote that the life of humans in their natural condition is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  I guess I’m constantly regressing into this pre-civilized state, for as far as the first adjective goes, I’m as solitary as they come, both by design and circumstance. (Moreover, friends and foes alike would probably call me nasty and brutish as well.)  I suppose the two are related.  That is, solitary creatures, whether intentionally or half-consciously, inevitably seek out an existence that allows them to be solitary, whereas sanguine and gregarious people desire the comfort of the group in their career choices.  As a university lecturer and platoon leader in the Army I’m not exactly separated from society.   Public speaking, before a class of fidgeting students or a gaggle of wisecracking soldiers, is routine for me.  Moreover, as a father of three rambunctious daughters, I find myself engaging in continual negotiations and putting my conflict-resolution skills to the test.  No, I’m not a monk or hermit.  Such desert-like isolation wouldn’t suit me.   Besides, I couldn’t get used to the hair shirt.  I'm solitary but not isolated.

Sometimes I think myself accursed for being a melancholy.  After all, seeing grey skies on a clear day, traversing the dunes alone while everyone else is warming their hands and singing songs at the beach campfire, withdrawing into myself when others find comfort in social gatherings or hanging with a friend, can take its toll.  Then there are those times when I embrace who I am and revel or find solace in reflection and solitude.  Yes, seeking solitude is part and parcel of my temperament. And for good or ill, I’m often marching to the beat of my own drum, less inclined to base my actions on those of others, especially as I get older.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

French Revolution, Napoleon, and the Pax Europa

The French Revolution was one of the most monumental events in modern history, spreading the promise of democracy and republican ideals as well as launching a precedent for total war and future reigns of terror. To me, a figure like Maximilien Robespierre has come to symbolize the awful confluence of good intentions, revolutionary zeal, and immense political power.  Speaking of megalomaniac!  Napoleon forged a vast empire out of the embers of a dying revolution.  After his defeat, diplomats thought long and hard about ways to redraw the map of Europe in the hope of avoiding another major war.  Arguably, it worked for almost a hundred years.  If we ignore the Crimean War, and the Italian and German wars for national unification in the middle of 19th century, the continent experienced a 99-year Pax Europa (European Peace), not a small achievement for a region of the world prone to enmity and war.  But all good things must come to an end.  I guess we all know that Europeans weren't ready to beat their swords into plowshares in the opening decades of the 20th century. Perhaps we can look forward to a brighter future for humanity at the outset of the present one.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Once was a Turtle, Now I’m a Snake

I once was a turtle, but now I’m a snake.
If you don’t believe me, ask my friend Froggy Jake.
On second thought don’t bother, for he’s long gone.
Like to think he’s trapping flies in the Great Pond beyond.
Moments ago I slowly crawled from the lake hither.
Now, sans shell, toward the tall grass I slither.
How this came to pass, I cannot possibly know,
For this abrupt change came as a shock and a blow.
Suddenly I realized upon a rock by the lake,
I once was a turtle, but now I’m a snake.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ideologies and their Flawed Adherents

I gauge the truth or validity of an idea, worldview, or movement on the basis of its truth claims.  Do they make sense?  Do they accord with science or otherwise resonate within the realm of possibility?  You’d be hard pressed to find a thinking person who does not operate in this rational way when determining something’s veracity. Yet people have different initial or kneejerk reactions to an ideology before they take into consideration all of the necessary factors in ultimately rejecting or accepting it. For some, the personal example set by the proponents of an idea carries more weight for them than the content of the idea.  Let me give you an example.

I’ve had discussions about Christianity with a couple good friends of mine, John and Andy, who like many Americans today are wavering between faith and agnosticism.  Both of them, I might add, are relationship-oriented people.  I’ve deduced from the way they phrase the issues that their acceptance of Christianity seems to hinge mostly on their perception of Christianity’s practitioners.  That is, one of the two emphasizes the wonderful Christians who evince love and kindness toward their fellow human beings.  The other notes with justified disdain the countless examples of Christian hypocrisy and intolerance.  I’m not saying that the behavior of adherents to a movement do not influence my own thinking.  I mean, if it appeared that most Christians are just as self-interested as the rest of humanity, how could Christianity be the transforming, transcendent experience that it’s supposed to be?  Still, I look first to the doctrinal claims of Christianity and try to determine whether they square with science and conventional views of morality and ethics.  Why?  It's not so much that I'm analytical; rather, it's because I’m a goal-oriented person.  The thoughts behind an ideology come first to me, the people who practice these things second.

My wife, for instance, has serious issues with Mormonism.  I’m also not a fan.  It’s one of the most preposterous, asinine religions out there, frankly.  (I’m aware that atheists think all religions are ridiculous, but Mormonism is surely one of the most patently false religions on the hierarchy of absurd faiths.)  Golden plates left by the Israelites in the middle of the United States and discovered by an obvious charlatan named Joseph Smith thanks to a heavenly messenger?  A planet where a male can be his own god, provided he’s impregnated enough females?  I never hear my wife voice the same condemnation of these bizarre Mormon doctrines; rather, she’ll talk about how those frickin’ Mormons screwed up her aunt and dug up her grandmother’s grave.  She’s relationship-oriented and the prism through which she sees a worldview is the people who propagate and live by it, less so the wacky ideas that fuel it.

Imagine a food guru who says that eating ice cream is the worst possible thing you could do to your body.  Then a scandal breaks out in which the said guru is caught on film eating Oreo ice cream cake like there’s no tomorrow.  Cream is running down his mouth as he looks into the camera with a sheepish expression.  “Humph!” a relationship-oriented person might exclaim.  “What a sham!  What a crock of shit, I say!”  I might think, though, that there’s validity to the idea of staying away from ice cream for healthy living, even though the hypocritical proponent of ice cream avoidance doesn’t practice what he preaches.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Recta and Anus

Buried deep in the annals of early church history is the story of Recta and Anus, Christian martyrs who refused to bend the knee to Rome and suffered excruciating deaths as a result.  In 250 CE, the vainglorious Roman emperor Decius required all Jews and Christians to worship pagan deities and offer a burnt sacrifice to the imperial family.  If this weren’t enough, Recta’s father, a prominent member of the plebian tribune and stern paterfamilias always looking for ways to advance himself and his family, forced his daughter to marry Tiberius Defaecius, a proud captain of the Praetorian Guard.  Recta, who had taken a vow of chastity to serve her Lord, found herself in a dilemma.  Should she obey her family or serve God?  She finally went to her father with her decision after consulting bishops who had secretly remained in Rome.  “I cannot marry Tiberius, father.  Please don’t make me!  I’m committed to the one true God and have dedicated my virgin body to the Christ.”  “Nonsense!” her father fired back. “You will not shame this family, but do as you’re told!”

Meanwhile, Anus, Tiberius’s slave boy, a neophyte who according to a 6th-century martyrology had heard about Recta’s compulsory betrothal from an angelic messenger while tending his master's horses, sought to help the Christian maiden through hours of prayer at the Sacra Ecclesia Haemorrhodiae of Fiumicino.  The Lord answered his petitions, for Tiberius had died while en route home from a campaign against the Sassanid Empire.  But the miracle came at a price, for both Anus and Recta were rounded up and executed, the former through burning at the stake and the latter through the application of poison ivy and other harmful herbs over her naked body.  Pious adherents to the cult of St. Recta preserved the two saints' remains in the Church of St. Flatula just outside of Monterotondo, where they remain to this day.  Catholics still commemorate the Christian martyrs on their joint feast day, April 13, a time of the year when tourists can witness the processions and festivities and gaze in amusement at the banners and placards depicting an inflamed Anus and itching Recta.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Blue and Grey

The Civil War started on this day 150 years ago when Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter.  Some say the conflict was about slavery, while others emphasize the issue of states’ rights.  Both of these interpretations are incorrect.  The War was really just an opportunity to wear those nifty blue and grey uniforms—the costumes that attracted my nascent aesthetic taste when I read illustrated histories of the Civil War as a kid.  To be sure, the men who dressed up in those uniforms had to have a reason, so they drudged up a war.  Though my sympathies are with the Union, I would have been tempted to join the Confederacy, as the grey and yellow was an amazing fashion statement.  Clearly, I’m not alone.  In fact, no less than General Robert E. Lee decided to command the Confederate forces not because he favored slavery, but because he wanted to don the grey duds.  Even the protection of his beloved Virginia was not reason enough to fight a war.   Those big brass buttons against a grey background evoked fond memories of his time at West Point.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Dark Nocturne of the Soul

If you ever wanted to know how I feel, sit yourself down at a piano keyboard.  (Never mind that you probably don't want to know, but humor me for a few moments.)  You will already have poured yourself a healthy dose of whiskey into a highball glass containing two or three ice cubes.  Take a few sips before setting the glass down on the piano, and you might want to use a coaster.  What I want you to do now is play a C octave on the lower register and hold it for, say, four measures.  Let the low drone sustain and permeate your soul.  Good job.  As the low C is ringing out, take your right hand and arm and, starting from middle C#, press down on all the black keys that you can, from your fingers to your elbow.  Hit them moderately hard, mezzo forte.  Excellent.  Now I want you to play a C# minor major seventh cord, third inversion, as you let off the pedal.  You want that dissonance of the C and C# notes really emphasized.  You’re already making me weep and scaring me at the same time.  Nice.  Finally, I want a chord cluster with a C# octave on the bass.  The right hand will play F#, G, and C, and you’ll hold it for as long as you want.  Observe a fermata of your own choosing.  Don't forget to finish off the glass of whiskey and let your thoughts roam toward the abyss and back.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Half Marathon in St. Louis

I ran a half marathon in St. Louis, Missouri this morning.  Over 13,000 runners crammed into the city streets, and that's not counting those who ran in the full marathon (which overlapped with the half marathon for the first 10 miles.)  The weather was great, the runners were awesome, the spirit excellent, and the downtown course pleasant.  On the downside, I started having issues with my right calf somewhere between mile 8 and 9, but I refused to stop or walk.  I bit the bullet and finished with a less-than-stellar time.  I was hoping to improve my time from the half marathon I ran in Columbia, South Carolina in November, but I had no business thinking I could improve, having hardly trained during these winter months.  I saw a few casualties along the road once I got past mile 10.  Mile 3 ran along the Anheuser-Busch brewery.  I instantly recognized the pleasant smell, which I liken to Campbell’s minestrone soup for some reason, and it evokes memories of driving on the freeway past Anheuser-Busch brewery in Van Nuys, California.  As always, I had to urinate during the run, no matter that I took care of business in a Porta Potty only minutes before the start.  When the course passed under a freeway overpass, a bunch of males ran off to the side to urinate.  Feeling discomfort in my bladder, I joined in, peeing in public for the first time, as hundreds of runners whizzed by whistling and catcalling.  I wouldn't call the experience exhilarating, but at least I can add public urination to my book of experiences.  Now I'm sitting in a hotel in Bridgeton, nursing my wounds, eating a cookie, watching CNN, and trying to forget my mortality.

The Antichrist's Birthday

I suppose a third of heaven celebrates April 10 every year, for I have inside knowledge that the Αντίχριστος, or Antichrist, was born on this day.  Yes, I can imagine the fallen angels blasting their trumpets and rejoicing, if it’s possible for demons to rejoice (and if they have trumpets).  I don’t mean the “antichrist” as a metaphor for rebellion against the establishment or as a generic symbol of social iconoclasm; rather, I’m talking about the man who according to Biblical prophecy will help Satan lead people to hell at the end of the world—the real flesh and blood Antichrist.  How do I know his birth date, you ask?  Armed with some knowledge of theology and Biblical hermeneutics, not to mention basic math skills, I solved the riddle that scribes had buried deep in the Scriptures long ago and has baffled scholars for centuries.

Many people think that the number of the Beast is 666.  However, the oldest version we have of Revelations 13:18, the passage where the author states the number, comes from papyrus fragments found in Egypt and dating to the third century CE.  The ancient source states 616, and I believe this is the correct number.  Now, add up the numbers and you’ll arrive at thirteen: 6 + 1 + 6 = 13.  Anyone who has studied the Bible would know that the Antichrist opposes the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit.  So what you then do is subtract three from this number, as if to show the devil’s detraction from God’s purposes, thus yielding the number ten: 13 – 3 = 10.   Voilà!

Where do I get April?  Well, I don’t want to boast, for I’m told that pride comes before a downfall; nonetheless, this discovery took some ingenuity on my part.  The Bible, namely 2 Corinthians 11:14, refers to Satan as an “angel of light,” which I suppose is an oblique reference to Lucifer, the morning star, in Isaiah 14.  I believe that this is code language for the Antichrist’s birth month.  In my dark neck of the woods sunshine does not appear on a regular basis until the month of April.  So there you have it, my friends!  Enough with my cogent argument!  Let’s move on to some of the more interesting questions about the Antichrist’s personality and psychological state.

Although I arrived at his birth date, I admittedly know little about the Antichrist’s identity. My hunch is—and this is pure speculation on my part—the Man of Lawlessness, to use Paul’s reference in his second letter to the Thessalonians, originates from California, for he’s no doubt a libertine and—let’s face it—most people in California are going to hell.  How old would he be by now?  I don’t know.  46?  50?  I figure he was probably born during the godless Sixties.  I suspect he's easy on the eyes as well, for he's going to charm the pants off the nations of the world in order to lead them down the road to perdition.  You would think I’d know more about devilish matters considering the fact that I’ve been possessed by demons three times in my life.  The first possession took place after I attended a Pentecostal service as a young teen.  The second possession occurred in 2000, after I watched a special re-release of The Exorcist on Friday the 13th.  My soul succumbed to a third demonic visitation when, like Martin Luther, I was in cloaca, that is to say, having a bowel movement on the toilet.  Luther famously threw an ink bottle at the devil, but I had only toilet paper at my disposal.  They laughed at me with their little demon voices as I tossed spit wads at them in vain.  I’ll get those little shits!  Anyway, I digress.

Imagine being the Antichrist!  Does he somehow know from birth that he’s the Man of Sin?  Or does he come to this realization at some point in his life?  What a sense of empowerment, huh?  I remember watching a scene in the mediocre 1978 horror film Damien: Omen II in which the 13-year-old Damien learns of his identity as the Beast.  He’s a bit shocked at first, but he seems to warm to the idea quickly. (For some reason, I found this scene memorable, even if the acting is less than stellar.  Unfortunately, the audio quality of the YouTube link is poor.)  I mean, wouldn’t you embrace your evil destiny if you had such power at the ready?  No, you say?  You wouldn’t want to be damned to hell?  And you’re just not hankering for such absolute power over life and death?  Whateva!  You'd start using that power in a heartbeat regardless of the price!  You know you want it.

Many eschatological expositors interpret the Antichrist as the embodiment of Western society’s fears of the Other: the Jew, the pagan, the Turk.  Those coming from an anthropological perspective see him as Christianity’s explanation of a very real problem in the world: human evil.  Elaine Pagels in The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics argues that the disciplines of Christ, given the death of their leader, needed to place their trials and tribulations on a cosmological scale.  Their Jewish enemies were merely pawns of dark spiritual forces lurking about.   Likewise, Bernard McGinn, in his Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil, demonstrates that Antichrist lore reveals the myriad ways in which Christians saw their opponents as representatives of pure evil.  More broadly, his working assumption is that “changing images of Antichrist as the totally wicked human can tell us about the understanding of evil in the history of Christianity.”  All of these interpretations are fine and dandy, but they fail to confront the obvious: a handsome middle-aged dude who likely hails from California, possessing preternatural intelligence, born on April 10, is about to take over the world.  So dust off your prayer beads and crucifix and gird your loins for spiritual warfare, for the hour of tribulation is almost upon us!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Das Narrenschiff

I’m not much of a sailor.  I once took a small sailboat out into the vast blue Caribbean off the coast of Cozumel, and with disastrous results. I no longer swim in a natural body of water unless it’s in a remote wilderness area and the water is more or less pristine.  I’ve canoed a few times, but I don’t know how to steer a larger vessel.  Sharks freak me out. I don’t like sand in my crotch.  I’ll never go on a pleasure cruise, what with the abductions, poor service, unhygienic conditions, and ridiculous prices I’ve heard so much about.  It’s not a mystery that I didn’t consider the Navy when shopping around for a military branch to join.

Putting all these unflattering facts together, I find it ironic that I’m on a Ship of Fools.  Who knew?  I’d rather have a front row seat in the Theater of the Absurd, because I’d at least get to watch movies.  I wouldn’t even mind Hell on Earth, for presumably I’d get the best of both worlds.  Instead, I’m walking the decks of the Ship of Fools observing rich and poor, young and old, foolish and less than foolish, men and women, monsters and freaks, posers and pontificators, dogmatists and skeptics, theists and atheists, sheep and goats, baristas and bartenders, shysters and propagandists, saints and sinners, friends and foes, smartasses and dumbasses, ascetics and hedonists, and the like.  Would that I could just take a leap of faith and get the hell out of here, but, again, sharks freak me out.  Oh well.  I suppose this ship will come into the harbor soon enough. Sebastian Brant in his Das Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools) of 1494 writes:

A fool that person is from birth
Who’d live long years upon this earth:
It’s nothing but a vale of tears,
In joys brief, long in grief and fears;
This stay for mortals ne’er is meant
To be quite long or permanent,
Since all will make a journey grand
Into a strange and unknown land.

Friday, April 8, 2011

I'm in the Army Now

I enlisted in the military on this day six years ago.  It’s been a great ride so far, and I’ve never looked back with regret.  To the contrary, I’ve picked up some new skill sets, met some great people, and visited parts of the United States and a few countries overseas that I would never have been to otherwise.   Initially I joined up because I wanted to kill people—lots of them—and get paid for it.  I learned that it’s not so simple.  They don’t just give you a rifle, load you up with magazines, and tell you to have at it.  The Army Reserve does not have combat units.   Besides, by the time I’d get into a combat zone, they would have groomed me for the role and channeled my bloodlust into professional soldiering.  I got in a fight during basic training and I’ve had some combatives training, but it’s not the same thing.  Anyway, I’ve put aside such foolishness since those days of yore.   Nowadays I teach my children that violence has never solved anything.  (Hitler, for instance, would have stopped his rapacious drive for world domination if we could have just talked to him a bit more.)  I’ve devoted my life to teaching consensus-building and verbal jujitsu and warn people with whom I come into contact of the dangers of ethnic hatred and racial prejudice.  I offer clinics and workshops on these topics, and indeed this blog is an extension of these irenic efforts.  I now eat tofu and listen to Barry Manilow on a regular basis.  So why am I in the Army now?  Service to country, a little extra income, and the feeling I get with a rifle or pistol in my hands at a shooting range on a brisk morning will keep me satisfied.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Reflections on the Seven Years War

The United States, as we know, is currently fighting two conflicts abroad, one in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. One could see these wars as in fact two theaters of the same “War on Terror” or separate them into entirely different issues. The common thread is of course the struggle between United States and al-Qaida, even if other NATO powers, affiliated terrorist organizations, and Islamic regimes participate in it. Though the analogy can’t take us too far, we see a similar situation in the Seven Years War (1756-63) and what we know in American history as the “French and Indian War” (1754-63).

The common thread in these two 18th-century contests is Anglo-French rivalry in Europe and abroad. In the course of the 1750s and culminating in the Treaty of Paris (1763), Britain embarked on the path toward world-empire status on which “the sun never set.” Contrariwise, the French empire started a protracted, slow decline, ultimately giving way to Anglo-American hegemony in the modern era—and the French are still smarting over “paradise lost!” In addition to the expansion of its possessions abroad, the two European powers had vested interests in the mercantile wealth of the Low Countries. On the continent the core of the conflict was a rivalry between Prussia and Austria over territory in central Europe. The “diplomatic revolution” involved an alliance between Austria and France to put the German state, an aspiring newcomer, in its place. Perhaps with “enemy of my enemy is my friend” calculation at the fore, Britain felt drawn to Prussia. Of the remaining superpowers, Russia was the “wildcard” in the conflict, alternately opposing and supporting Frederick II.

The victor on the continent was clearly Prussia, which concluded favorable peace terms in the Treaty of Hubertusburg. Frederick’s aggressive policies had paid off; Prussia had increased its territory and became a major power. A more impressive victory belongs to Great Britain who seized French possessions in the New World and India. (The term Great Britain, used more commonly at this time, referred to England, Scotland and Wales and dates back to 1603. It referred not to national might but geographic distinctions; its opposite, “Little Britain,” was Brittany, a duchy in western France that England had claimed since the Middle Ages.)

Too often military historians feel compelled to label many pre-World War I conflicts as world wars: the Thirty Years War and Louis IV’s wars of the late 17th century, for instance. We shouldn’t forget that World War I (1914-18) is so named for good reason. Nonetheless, the Seven Years War was truly the first European war that had generated regional conflict throughout the globe and had global implications. It led indirectly to the two great revolutions of the modern world: the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799).  Both Britain and France (victor and vanquished) suffered from financial hardships after the war. To pay for the debt, the British crown and Parliament required the English colonies of North America to pay greater taxes. The French crown was in a tougher bind. King Louis XVI had the unenviable task of taxing the independent nobility or the overburdened common folk.  His decision helped spark a revolution.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Specter of Genocide

On 6 April 1994, someone fired a rocket into a plane carrying the president of Rwanda as it was about to land at the Kigali airport. Hours later one of the worst genocides in world history was underway, as Hutu killers begin to massacre any political leader, Hutu or Tutsi, who had supported an earlier peace agreement between the government and rebel Tutsi forces. Historians of genocide call this eliticide, the murder of the elite of a target group so as to demoralize followers and prevent an organized response. But the perpetrators didn’t stop with the leadership; ultimately, 800,000 people lost their lives in this systematic, carefully planned slaughter. I’ve already written about the Rwandan genocide on a few occasions and don’t want to retread old terrain. I’m currently teaching a course on genocide for the University of Mantua (pseudonym) and have divided up the curriculum into five units or case studies. For these next two weeks we’re focusing on Rwanda; as it turns out, the genocide begin in the month of April (and lasted for three months). Then again, two earlier genocides that we have discussed in this class, the Armenian genocide and Cambodian genocide, also started in April!

For those of you who like to keep up on U.S. foreign policy, especially given our far-flung military commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere, you should know a thing or two about Rwanda. Just over a week ago President Obama invoked the specter of genocide in the explanation of his decision to take action in Libya. He didn’t name Rwanda or Bosnia or Saddam Hussein, but these dark episodes in recent history were in the backdrop of his statement:

In the past, we had seen him [Gaddafi] hang civilians in the streets and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that...if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. It was not in our national interest to let that happen; I refused to let that happen.

Granted, this was only one of his arguments, the moral issue, but appealing to the prospect of our “stained conscience” was a big one.  I don’t want to address the question as to whether assisting the anti-Gaddafi rebels via air strikes is a foolhardy undertaking or the proverbial “right thing to do.”  That’s an issue for another post.  His critics on the far left and on the right—the latter somewhat disingenuously, I might add—rightly ask why we have intervened to stop a ruthless dictator in North Africa when the world is filled to the brim with such loathsome regimes (e.g., North Korea, Ivory Coast, Congo, Myanmar, Zimbabwe).  The age-old question arises: Are we the Policeman of the world?

I will say, however, that the President’s allusion to the prospect of genocidal massacre on the part of the Gaddafi regime, should the international community not intervene, resonated with me. After all, ever since the Holocaust some seventy years ago, the international community has continually cried out “never again!” ex post facto.  More recently, the great powers of the world, the United States above all, turned a blind eye or made the situation worse when genocide broke out in Bosnia and Rwanda.  Then there was Darfur within a decade!  I plan to post my thoughts on our involvement in Libya in the future, but this part of President Obama's address captured my ear.  Of course it’s not the most solid foundation for one’s argument to rely on the absence of evidence, and it certainly won't satisfy his critics.  Like President Bush who warned about a Saddam Hussein with nuclear capabilities, President Obama is claiming to prevent a massacre that would break out if NATO does not get involved.