Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Fascination of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

On New Years Eve, 2014, while at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago and perhaps while slightly inebriated, I made a point of advising my daughters and their friends that it was in that very spot, or somewhere in the hotel in any case, that the U.S. Army held hearings regarding the disastrous Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known in less politically correct times past as Custer's Last Stand.  I may have told them this more than once, alas.  They appeared less impressed than I had hoped.

My daughters notwithstanding, that battle, which seems to have taken a remarkably small period of time and so may not have been a "battle" as commonly conceived, and which was called the Last Stand for reasons unknown to me (I don't think it was much of a stand, and don't know that Custer really had prior "stands"), continues to be a source of fascination and controversy.  I'm one of those who find it fascinating. 

I'm not sure why I do.  Best estimates are that it took one half hour to an hour from the time of Major Reno's abortive charge of the camp of the Sioux and Cheyenne to the annihilation of Custer and his command.  The siege of Reno and Captain Benteen and their men took somewhat longer, of course, and had a happier outcome for the besieged.  Modern archaeological methods based on where cartridges were found indicate that Custer's attack on the flank of the camp became a route in short order.  If there was a heroic Last Stand, it was a brief one.

I suppose it fascinates for several reasons.  First, no one escaped to "tell the tale" of what happened to Custer, his brothers and their men, though Reno and Benteen survived as did others who were not at the Last Stand.  Second, George Armstrong Custer has been portrayed as a hero or a lunatic depending on the fashion and is in any case a remarkable figure.  Third, the idea that the Sioux and Cheyenne could so thoroughly defeat a, regiment of U.S. Calvary was thought and is still apparently thought by some to be shocking.  It's the same reason the defeat of the British by the Zulus at Islandlwanna fascinates.  Some clearly feel that the battle would have been won by the 7th had Reno not panicked or had Benteen not been unwilling to save Custer.  There may be a kind of racism at work here in the obsessive regard for battles in which civilized whites were overrun by "savages."

That this happened, though, is undoubted, just as it cannot be doubted that many of the victories of the 7th Calvary and other army units during the Indian Wars were in fact massacres along the lines of what took place at Washita.  Perhaps it was the working of karma that Custer and his men were eventually massacred themselves. 

Custer still has his backers, who think he was failed by Reno and Benteen.  Reno it seems was not a heroic figure and is commonly portrayed as weak and a drunkard.  Benteen, though, a dour, cantankerous man, was notably brave under fire and was thought to be the "Savior of the Seventh" for a time at least.  Both men loathed Custer, and it seems Custer loathed them.  Custer's backers think Reno a coward and Benteen deliberately slow in coming to the battlefield. 

Questions are asked regarding why Custer split his command into three groups.  There is speculation that Custer was eager for some great victory to regain his reputation which had been somewhat sullied by his conflict with then-President Grant, or rather with certain of his underlings and their friends engaged in corruption.  It's claimed this caused him to be reckless in the disposition of his forces.  It's noted that Custer said he could not see the huge numbers scouts saw encamped on the river.  The Indians had repeater rifles as well as other weapons while the soldiers had carbines, single shot rifles.  Custer told his men not to wear their sabres that day, and the Indians were terrified of those "long knives."

All we can know with relative certainty, though, is that Reno attacked pursuant to orders, halted and formed a skirmish line, then retreated.  Custer and his men came upon the camp and were thrown back in disorder.  Before he attacked Custer sent a messenger back to Benteen to come quick and bring the ammunition packs in the wagons he was leading.  Unfortunately, the messenger he chose was an Italian immigrant whose English is said to have been poor.  Benteen arrived at the battle and assisted Reno in the retreat, eventually taking a position on Reno Hill.  Some say the battlefield is redolent of lonlieness, terror and despair.  I've never visited it, but hope to do so.

Perhaps in the end it fascinates because we empathize with the soldiers and can imagine their terror and despair as they were quickly overrun.  The Sioux and Cheyenne were merciless to survivors; thus one soldier is said to have blown his brains out though the warriors later said he could have escaped had he tried.  They were probably used to easy fights, or were inexperienced young men; the army wasn't much of a career in the years after the Civil War.  The glory of war, forsooth.

They say Sitting Bull was in Buffalo Bill's show for some time, and participated in the "reenactments" of the battle put on by that showman.  What a sad thought that is.  Who ended up worse, by their own lights?  Custer and his heroic dead or Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Gall and the other victors, put on show or dying not as warriors, but as prisoners?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Aux Armes, Citoyens

There's something about La Marseillaise.  Certainly it's a most stirring anthem, instantly recognizable; the anthem of a nation that believed itself to have experienced freedom at long last, only to be threatened by a tyrant backed by foreign armies.  A call to arms to preserve freedom.

It's peculiar of course that within a few years of the writing of that song, or more properly poem, the self-styled Son of the Revolution (or embodiment of it, even), Napoleon, was ruling France as an autocrat.  While he did impose reforms that can be said to have been consistent with certain of the professed aims of the Revolution, it's doubtful the France during his rule can be said to have been free.  But nor was it free during the Terror.  Even so, the song itself is an inspiration towards freedom, and speaks of the need to defend it.  It gives France a kind of claim to being the birthplace of freedom in the modern world and even the birthplace of modernity itself.

France seems to retain its status as an icon of freedom even today, given the reaction of the Western world, at least, to the murderous attack on those working at a satirical publication in Paris, purportedly for "picturing" the Prophet Mohammad, which is evidently forbidden, as it seems so much is forbidden, in certain Islamic sects.  This reaction has resulted in a remarkable public display of solidarity against terrorists.  It's a display which has been sadly lacking.

Christopher Hitchens wrote that institutional religions are the products of the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species, a claim with which I sympathize in some respects.  But a religion whose adherents kill with abandon while shouting "God is great" is deserving of more scathing and significant characterizations.  Granted, that religion may be an extreme and twisted form of Islam, and that many followers of Islam may deplore it.  Granted, other religions in the past, and perhaps even now in other ways, have sanctioned murder and repression in the name of God.

Grant all that and we are still faced with a particular threat, apparently based on religious views of a particular kind, which is violent, has killed and seeks to kill, seeks to repress any views but its own, seeks to repress an entire sex, and seeks to suppress conduct of any kind but a certain kind.  We should treat it as a threat.  We should treat these primitives as threats.  They're not merely discontented victims of the modern world.  They're committed to a tyranny different from that to which France was subject before 1789.

This is not a case of a clash of cultures, and it is absurd to treat it as such.  There is no obligation to accord this kind of world-view any respect.  There is no reason to withhold judgment on the ground that there is no sure or objective basis on which to condemn it.  There is simply no reason it should not be questioned, nor is there any reason to allow its adherents to impose it where they will.  It should be countered, it should be deplored, and where it translates into conduct harmful to others it should be stopped.

With some regret I must admit to finding myself wondering whether those we hear of who "march" in Europe against what they call the Islamization of the West, or of Europe in particular, may raise a valid point--not that people should not be allowed to be Muslims in the West, which is clearly invalid.  Not that Muslims should be barred from living in the West, either.

However nobody, Muslim or otherwise, when moving to or living in a nation/society which recognizes free speech and free thought, and free conduct subject to the rule of law, should expect that nation/society to abide by their contrary customs or the limitations they wish to see imposed on speech or thought or conduct.  Having such an expectation is unreasonable, and is indicative of a selfish and self-righteous nature.  If people are unable to tolerate such a nation or society without harming others, they need not and should not go there.  If they are there already, they should not be there, and their clear option is to leave.

Perhaps it's not time to take up arms, but it is past time to meet these primitives with a solid front and resists their efforts to repress and threaten others, or kill others in the name of an apparently bloodthirsty god if their actions are representative of that god's will.  There is a limit to toleration where action is concerned, and nothing sacred about action which is harmful to others.

Monday, January 5, 2015

War Guilt

The Treaty of Versailles, the one that resulted at the end of the First World War, contained the following, commonly known as the "war guilt clause" (Article 231):

"The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies."

This clause and its consequences have been the subject of considerable dispute over the years.  It was of course much resented by Germans at the time.  Was it inserted merely to provide a more or less legal foundation for the reparations Germany was required by the treaty to pay?  Was it an expression of the desire which may have been honest or dishonest to characterize Germany as an evil aggressor?  Was it a just assessment of "war guilt" or unjust and hypocritical?

It's been called an incitement to future war, and a cause of the rise of Hitler.  I'm not sure if that's entirely the case, however.  I think it's likely war would have come regardless of any sense of injustice experienced due to the clause itself.  The treaty as a whole made war probable, I think.  It was well called an armistice for twenty years by some Frenchman, whether Marshal Foch or an adviser to Clemenceau or someone else (this seems a matter of some dispute as well).  It created quite a mess by arbitrarily establishing borders, creating new and sometimes remarkable states, and trying to satisfy the imperial and otherwise territorial claims of the victors.  We're victimized by its nation-building still.  Wilson, for all his pontificating, caved in dreadfully to demands made by Britain and France, leaving Germany and others feeling betrayed.

I'm one of those who think the U.S. should not have become involved in that war, and so have no fondness for Wilson or for the leaders of France and Great Britain at the time.  However, I also feel that Germany was primarily responsible for the war if by "responsible" we mean causing it to take place.  I also feel that although Allied propaganda was extreme and irresponsible in its characterization of the Germans as barbarians, and the Allies themselves were guilty of atrocities in that war, the Germans' conduct in Belgium, their destruction of people and historic properties in that small nation, their initiation of the use of poison gas on the battlefield, all were indicative of a ruthlessness and disregard of the accepted rules of war of that time which could be called barbaric.  Perhaps surprisingly, German apologists of the time, when they did not deny atrocities took place, justified them on the grounds that the end (protecting the lives of German soldiers, for example) justified the means.

Of course, we then had much to learn of cruelty and barbarism in wartime, and proved to be eager students.  Lately, we in the U.S. have taken to justifying torture and other things on the grounds that the end (protecting American lives) justifies the means.  It doesn't put us in the best of company.

The concept of "war guilt" had its place at the end of the Second World War as well.  We saw it in the Nuremberg trials and other war trials and the occupation of Japan and Germany.

Does it remain a useful or at least existent concept at this time?  Was it ever useful or proper?  Is it inappropriate or unhelpful to assign blame for war?

It may be useful and possible as to wars of aggression, and could be if there is a rule of law applicable to wars.  The Allies, and particularly the French after WWI, in that case would have had a legal claim for damages.  On the Western front, the great majority of the fighting took place on French soil.  The war guilt clause would thus be a kind of legal finding or conclusion if there was a governing tribunal.  The treaty might in that case be considered a settlement, but if it was a settlement Germany may have been able to agree to reparations without admitting liability and expressly denying it, which is typical in settlement agreements entered into to resolve a dispute.

Whether there is any rule of law is questionable, though; even if there is one applicable to war, it seems it will be disregarded when necessary.  But there is especially no rule of law where there is a conflict, but no war, which is the situation we find ourselves in now and have been in for some decades  There seem to be no rules where there is no war; not even rules that can be disregarded.

Accepting that some people or some nation can be responsible for a war in certain cases (to have caused a war), reparations would seem appropriate in that case.  But it's possible to cause a war without commencing military hostilities.  It's possible to be forced into war.  In that case, though, there is still someone causing a war, which could be subject to penalty.  This is something the law can handle, provided all agree to laws and a method of resolving dispute as to causes.

We've been hesitant to accept any laws, or courts, which are not our laws and our courts, however.   We're unwilling to leave the determination of responsibility to others.  We are willing to leave the determination to the victor, as we think we are likely to be the victor.  This is all well and good when we are the strong nation.  But all things pass. 

It is one of the benefits of law that it would have application regardless of whether one is or is not strong or likely to win.  It is in fact this which would make war less of a desirable option than it currently is--those nations which are victorious on the field may otherwise lose.  If we're serious about peace, we may have to accept the concept of war guilt and be willing to have that guilt assessed by an impartial decision maker.  This is much as we do among ourselves.  What is it that prevents us from doing so in our external as well as internal relationships?

Distrust, it would seem.  There are of course those who think that a single world government is being planned and sought by various people and powers.  But in essence it seems we simply don't trust the other residents of this world to properly judge citizens of the United States, nor do we trust them to participate in the creation of laws which we would find acceptable. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Why Monotheism?

I'm not a polytheist.  For what seems most of my life, however, I've heard and read that monotheism is in some sense superior to polytheism.  This is not unusual given my Catholic upbringing, I suppose (or perhaps not--more on that later).

Polytheism has been equated with paganism and idolatry.  It has been characterized as a religious belief system of a primitive and superstitious nature, replete with magic.  Well and good, perhaps, for the unsophisticated of ancient times and even in modern times in savage lands, until assorted missionaries brought with them the truth and began inviting the savages ever so gently to accept it.  Monotheism, though, is considered a sophisticated and far more profound system of religious belief.

Why is this the case, though?  Let us acknowledge as we must that Christianity, and especially Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, has certain problems in claiming to be monotheistic.  The first problem is the Trinity.  It may be a great and unfathomable mystery, but on its face, at least, it requires one to maintain that a single God consists of three persons, each of them God but all of them God, as well, and necessarily so.   It should surprise no one that such a conception of God is not easily accepted as monotheism.

Then there is the related problem of God having a son (or indeed being the Son, as well as the Father and the Holy Spirit).  The pagan gods had sons; plenty of them, in fact.  Those sons, however, were distinguishable from their divine parents, and so it may be claimed that Christ as Son is not similar to pagan sons of gods; but again it must be acknowledged that this distinction that is not a clear distinction (Son of God but also God) leaves one feeling rather uneasy.  Monotheism?  Well, so we have been taught.

Also, Christianity's assimilation of pagan gods in the form of saints, and the prevalence of statutes and icons in Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity, at least, makes one wonder about the extent to which Christianity represents monotheism.   Ancient Greco-Roman paganism accepted that there were minor gods subservient to Zeus or Jupiter, and the saints hold similar subservient status and have been said to perform miracles which duplicate or are similar to the works of minor gods worshipped in antiquity.  It almost seems Christianity is polytheistic in a sense.

The same cannot necessarily be said of the other Western monotheisms such as Islam and Judaism.  However, those religions seem to recognize angels as subservient powers sometimes involved in the interrelations between God and humanity.  And we have not even considered the devil and his host of demons who seem to figure in each of the major Western monotheistic beliefs.  Monotheism, it seems, still contemplates a rather crowded universe filled with supernatural powers, some good and some bad.  As understood in the major Western religions, it seems monotheism may not be as different from polytheism as we have believed.

There is a least one clear difference between ancient polytheism and institutionalized monotheism, though.  The major Western monotheistic religions each claim that the god they worship is the only true god, and that the worship of that only god is the only way to truth and salvation.  Ancient polytheism by its nature didn't require a belief in one god to the exclusion of any other. 

The monotheism we know has been exclusive and intolerant to varying degrees throughout its history, sometimes violently so.  The violence continues, and it's likely it always will as long as monotheists insist there is only one god, one truth.  The superiority of monotheism over polytheism is not clear at all in this respect, to me at least.  Worship of a god which requires intolerance of other religious view doesn't strike me as a religious belief, or a god, which can be called superior to much of anything.

But there have been kinds of monotheism which have not been exclusive and intolerant.  Those monotheisms relate to gods who are generally less personal and less lawgivers than those of the institutional religions.  Deists, pantheists may posit the existence of a single god, but not one who is so insistent on certain conduct and ceremony; a god that is less human, shall we say.

Is monotheism of this kind superior to polytheism?  Well, the gods of ancient polytheism were notoriously human in nature, and as it seems that such very human gods would not be expected to hold sway throughout the universe, an impersonal single god would appear to be a more reasonable hypothesis.  May their be an impersonal polytheism?  An interesting question.  I can't see how this would be an impossibility, though.  If it's not, why would monotheism of that kind be superior to polytheism of that kind?

Would Occam's Razor make the single god preferable in that case?  Perhaps.  But it's not clear to me that preferable in this sense is superior.  I doubt an atheist would be impressed by either monotheism of polytheism.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Movies, Moralism and Books

If the title of this post causes confusion, I will clarify.  I refer to books which are made into movies, by moralists--moralists who depart from the book on which the movie is said to be based, for what they consider to be the good of the audience, or because the book is lacking in some respect which the moralist believes must be corrected in the movie.

Most recently, we see this take place in Peter Jackson's prolonged treatment of a relatively short book by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.  Compared to The Lord of the Rings which followed it, and which rather obviously addressed good and evil, I've always thought The Hobbit to have been written with no moral point in mind, rather like other classic "children's" works, before we began writing books to teach children what we refrain from teaching them ourselves.  In the film versions, it becomes a kind of morality tale regarding the perils of avarice.

Then there is the insertion of characters and events; something at which Mr. Jackson excels, and indulged in even when filming The Lord of the Rings.  For example, he managed to coax an entire host of Elves to come to the relief of Rohan at Helm's Deep, though no such thing took place in the book.  The chief of this host, who looked disturbingly like Legolas as played by Orlando Bloom, as did the members of the host we could see, announced they came to stand beside Men in the fight against evil.  Most uplifting.  But I wonder whether Jackson unwittingly was suggesting all Elves look the same, to him.

This time, though, he inserts as a major character one not mentioned in the book at all, an Elf woman of his own devising.  From what I've read he did this because he thought girls should have as kind of role model someone of their own, though an Elf, slaughtering Orcs and Goblins.  Not content with manufacturing this character, he conjures a romantic relation between her and one of the dwarves, probably to show us that we can all love one another and are all really the same, regardless of our differences.

I find myself wondering what it is that possesses someone making a movie based on a book, to depart from the book radically.  Presumably, the book is being made into a movie because the book is loved and admired, or at least very popular.  Why, then, change the book?

It's possible, of course, that scenes from a book cannot be effectively presented in a movie.  Our technology allows us to do a great deal in movies we couldn't do before, of course.  But even so, sometimes a picture won't do what was done in print.

It's also possible, of course, that a movie may be better than a book by departing from it, at least as far as lesser books are concerned, or that a movie may depart from a book in such a way as to take its place as a uniquely separate work of art.  Stanley Kubrick made a habit of taking books and running with them, in directions the author did not or could not imagine.

Although Kubrick collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke in making 2001:  A Space Odyssey, the movie and the book differ significantly.  There, though, Clarke may have written the book after the movie.  This has never been clear to me.  And Stephen King was appalled to find out what Kubrick had done to The Shining, though frankly I would take the movie over the book any day.  I consider the movie far superior.  As if to prove this to be the case, King made his own movie version of his book, which was uninteresting.  I'm not sure of what Anthony Burgess thought of A Clockwork Orange, but it's justly considered a great movie.

"Better than the book" doesn't work in the case of Mr. Jackson's adaptions of Tolkien, in my opinion, but neither are they such as to be considered unique works in and of themselves, being too derivative except in certain carefully selected ways.  So are others where moralists make movies.  The film version of The Scarlett Letter has Hester running off with Dimmesdale, presumably to live happily ever after.  Disney, of course, annihilated The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with everyone loving and accepting Quasimodo.  Such are perversions of great novels.

One can go on, of course.  But I think it takes an especially arrogant and self-righteous person to radically change a book, "for the better."  Great books should be taken "as is" and with all faults.  They cannot be made "better" and if those making movies seek to accomplish such a thing they should leave well enough alone.