Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Tools of War

Recent discussions of our current crop of wars, plus a session on drones on Talk of the Nation, got me thinking about the evolution of war in general.  Because it has evolved.  The warriors of ancient Athens and Sparta, the Roman Legions, would barely recognize what we consider "war."  As far back as we have records, up until, say, the sixteenth century, war was a hand to hand affair, with hand-held weapons and defenses - swords, knives, spears, clubs, and shields.

But also as far back as you look, humans have been trying to devise ways to kill each from a greater and greater distance - that is, from beyond arm's length. Primitive tribes, and prehistoric man, used spear throwers (atlatls) to give their spears more range, but more advanced peoples don't seem to have used them.  But it's obviously advantageous if you can kill Joe before Joe gets in stabbing range of you.

Early long-range weapons were mainly bows and slings, both of which go back about as far as we can research.  Bows are spectacular and showy, but slings were also popular - a Roman or a Greek slinger could kill his enemy with a rock as effectively as we now do with a bullet, and much more quietly.  I found a fascinating discussion of slingers on, the poster was describing a figure he had created of a Roman funditor, and the research that went into it.  The Greeks developed the catapult, a large mechanical sling, as early as 399 B.C.; and catapult design was also associated with crossbow design, both using mechanical means rather than human muscle to throw a projectile.

Bows, slings and catapults were it for killing beyond arm's length until Marco Polo's trip to China opened up the Silk Road, and brought gunpowder back.  I found a history of firearms on which suggests that the first matchlock guns were used in the 15th century.  Also in the 15th century, forts begin to be built in the shape of a 5 pointed star - they were easier to defend against cannon than the traditional square bailey.  Guns in the 15th through 18th centuries were dangerous but had limitations - they weren't very accurate, they were hard to load, and they only shot one ball at a time.  And black powder sometimes explodes when you don't want it to.  In the early periods, crossbows or longbows were much more accurate.

The 19th century saw mass-produced arms, and improvements in long-distance killing which outpaced the military tacticians who fought against them - that was why the American Civil War was so bloody, both sides were using tactics meant for smoothbore muskets, with a range of about 300 feet, but they were shooting rifled muskets which were accurate up to half a mile.  (While researching this post, I found a most interesting dissent from this standard conclusion:  Firearms and Tactics of the American Civil War: A Minority Opinion, by Dr. Howard G. Lanham, which I recommend to those interested in military history.)

Over the next century or so, the accuracy and range of the armaments continued to outpace the military tactics in use, until World War II when the Nazi tacticians really understood how to use the Panzer tanks and small fighter planes they had developed.  That's one of the reasons they were so hard to defeat.  And then there are the nuclear bombs.

Our latest development is armed drones, which may well make the romantic figure of the fighter pilot obsolete.  A man can pilot an armed drone in Afghanistan while sitting in a control room in Iowa.  This has to be the ultimate in long-range killing - you aren't even on the same continent.

What worries me about all this is the impact on the warrior using these remote weapons.  I have no personal experience of war, but my reading suggests a vast difference in the impact on the warrior between stabbing someone with a knife, sword or spear, at arm's length, and killing someone you may not even be able to see without a magnifying aiming scope - or a camera image on a screen.  It's clear why one would want to distance oneself; but if the distance makes the victim less real, less human, then it merely contributes to the endless cycle of wars that plague us.  Not to mention that the farther the warrior is from his target, the more likely he is to kill an innocent bystander, by sheer chance.

I don't mean to suggest that our soldiers currently fighting in Afghanistan aren't fighting hand to hand; they are, of course.  Both sides in that conflict continue to use weapons that kill the enemy at as great a distance as they can manage.  The ubiquitous IED is the Afghan tribesman's effort at a distance-killing machine.

I have no real claim to be a military historian; I'm a widely read layman with a strong interest in military history as a subset of history in general.  But I wanted to write, and work through, some of my thoughts on the overall evolution of the ways we like to kill each other.  We become so involved in the politics of our wars that we lose sight of their effect on the people who fight them for us; and I believe that is a mistake.

No More War

You hear this a lot lately.  We should get out of Iraq, get out of Afghanistan and Libya, spend the money at home.

Well, of course we should get out of Iraq; we never had any serious business in Iraq.  If we had really wanted to block Al Qaeda, which is what they said they wanted at the time, Saddam Hussein was our best friend, a secular dictator with no tolerance for anyone else's power.  But that train has left the station.

We should have had better sense than to get tangled up in Afghanistan, too.  The British Empire was in Afghanistan for generations and they never managed to do much more than control the roads.  The Russian army went up against Afghanistan in the '80s and bounced - helped by the U.S., who armed the people who are now aiming those arms at us.  Afghan society is tribal, largely illiterate, and rural Afghans (the majority) are deeply suspicious of anybody they haven't known from birth.  Trouble is, we have no way right now to leave Afghanistan without major loss of face; and avoiding loss of face is a big reason people go to war at all.

We aren't really in Libya, at least we've managed to avoid putting any troops in there - which is as it should be.  But we sure seem to be spending a lot of bucks on logistical support.

In spite of all the noble sentiments I hear, I don't really believe we'll ever get rid of war.  As long as we have records of humans, we have records of humans at war.  Some of the earliest Cro-Magnon tools?  Spear points.  Beautifully crafted spear points.  Of course they used them for hunting; the question is, hunting what?  Humans must like war a lot; we do it all the time, and the less educated we are, the more we think war is a good solution.  Ask the Taliban.  We're a violent bunch, when you get down to it.

We forget, between wars, how awful war is; and the people who haven't experienced war don't really get how awful it is, which is why we treat our veterans so casually.  And why we keep starting new wars.  Our taste for killing, if possible at a considerable distance, has led us to develop ever more effective arms (more on that in a separate post), until we've finally made war so dangerous it really could dispose of all of us.

Blessed are the peacemakers - but they sure are outnumbered.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

No More Free Speech at Berkeley

I've been following the current flap about the Increase Diversity Bake Sale, put on today at U.C. Berkeley by the campus Republican students' group.

U.C. Berkeley students, I'm ashamed of you.  And I don't mean the Republicans, who are exercising their constitutional right to be publicly offensive in order to make a point.  To paraphrase Voltaire slightly, I don't agree with their point, but I will defend to the death their right to make it.  In fact, if their purpose in this was to stir up debate, I'd say they've succeeded brilliantly.

Michael Krasny's Forum gave the brouhaha half an hour this morning, during which the earnest Vishali Loomba, president of the ASUC (for you non-Berkeley folks, that's the student union), complained that the bake sale was "rude," it "dissed people" and made them uncomfortable.  Well, yes.  Welcome to U.S. political discourse, Ms. Loomba - that's what free speech is supposed to do.  For the record, after listening to Ms. Loomba speak, she was either born here or has lived here most of her life; for those of you who don't understand satire, that remark was intended to be satirical.

For a somewhat earlier example of satirical free speech which made some people very uncomfortable indeed, I recommend Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, published in 1729.  (For the record, I wrote my honors thesis for my B.A. on Jonathan Swift.)

I attended U.C. Berkeley during the original Free Speech Movement.  I remember people standing on top of police cars with microphones, and sitting in at Sproul Hall.  And the students all thought that was fine because they agreed with the protestors.  Your lesson for today, U.C. students:  free speech is meaningless if it is only available to the people you agree with.  I remember some time ago when an Israeli official was booed off the stage at U.C. Berkeley by Palestinian supporters.  I was more appalled then than I am now; but I hereby state that this is it:  as far as I'm concerned, U.C. Berkeley has forfeited the right to call itself "the home of free speech."   

And I have another bone to pick.  With all the emoting about the "discount pricing" for buyers of color, none of the complainers, not even Ms. Loomba (at least until I became so annoyed I turned Forum off), has even mentioned the 25 cent discount for all women!  Apparently it's OK to insult women as long as you don't insult them for their skin color.  As a feminist, now I'm really appalled!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Photos from Carmel

I just got around to processing the photos I took while I was in Carmel for the Bach Festival.  Since I spent most of my time doing non-photographic things, they boil down to two groups - some shots of the Carmel Mission, interior and exterior (taken while waiting for the organ concert), and some photos of surf on the beach, just before I came home.  I learned on this trip that beaches don't appeal to me as much now as they did when I was 11.  Somehow the prospect of getting sand in everything made me take some long lens shots from the pavement edge and leave the soft white sand to the people who were willing to live with it!

The interior shots of the mission were very interesting, they have a lovely reredos (look it up!):

Carmel Mission - reredos

and the only statue I've ever seen personally of St. Joseph with the Holy Child instead of the Madonna:

Carmel Mission - St. Joseph and the Christ Child

The pipe organ is quite beautiful and visually very baroque.

Carmel Mission - organ

When I got down to the beach, a couple of days later, it was a gorgeous day with a strong surf running, and I got some nice ocean shots.  I got a big wave just breaking:

Surf, Carmel Beach

and we mustn't forget the surfer waiting for his wave:

Surfer, Carmel Beach 

It was so gorgeous I was surprised there was only one surfer.  Feel free to check out the rest of the photos.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Driving the Sunshine Coast

Our next vacation stop after Vancouver was Powell River, about a day's drive up the B.C. coast from Vancouver.  I have an old friend who lives in Powell River.  When we entered Canada, the border guard asked us, where are you going, and we said, Vancouver, Powell River, and Whistler.  "Powell River!" he exclaimed.  "Why would you go there?

Getting to Powell River entails a drive up the Sunshine Coast, so called by the local chamber of commerce.  I don't believe we saw the sun once while in the area, and much of the time, it was raining.  And driving the Sunshine Coast isn't especially scenic, because the roads are lined with tall trees, the whole way.  If you leave the main road and drive down to the coast (about half a mile), the views of the Georgia Strait are spectacular; but as a fellow guest in our Vancouver B&B complained, "We drove the Sunshine Coast and all we saw was green!"  That's what we saw.  You start out at the huge ferry terminal in Horseshoe Bay, and take the first ferry for Langley:

In about 45 minutes, you drive off the ferry and onto the Sunshine Coast Highway.  We stopped at a local park (Cliff Gilker Park, in Roberts Creek) to eat our packed lunch (in a light drizzle) and take a short hike, where we saw a waterfall:

The park was off the road, up a semi-paved track.  The only signs of civilization were a fenced sports field, a single house, and a public rest room.  I was touched to find, when I used the rest room, that someone (presumably the lady of the house) had put a vase of fresh wildflowers in it.  The rest of the trip was uneventful, and green.  The only place the road gets near the sea is in Sechelt.  We didn't stop.

The actual drive only took us a couple of hours, including a side trip to Egmont, where we hoped to see the Skookumchuk Narrows, a tidal rapids.  Since that involved hiking down a trail of unknown length (NO CARS, the sign said), we turned around and continued on to the Earl's Cove ferry terminal, where we waited.  Most of this trip is spent waiting for ferries to arrive.  Here is Earl's Cove:

I post the photo because I was astounded.  I took this trip in 1981, alone (on a bus), and at that time the Earl's Cove ferry terminal was a wooden dock by a grassy slope.  The road came up to the dock and stopped.  There were no buildings and no other signs of civilization.  Now it's not only paved and furnished with steel frames, it has restrooms and a small restaurant.  I know why they built it up, but it was prettier in 1981.  Eventually the ferry came, and in another 45 minutes or so we docked in Saltery Bay and everybody rolled off the boat and onto the highway.   We stayed in a bed and breakfast about an hour north of Powell River, The SeaDream B&B.  Why so far?  Well, look at the view from the porch in front of our room:

The hosts were very friendly and chatty and very good cooks!  If you'd like to see the rest of the photos from this section of the trip, you'll find them at Up the Sunshine Coast on my SmugMug site.