Philip K Dick – The Man in the High Castle

I swore that I’d read more fiction and as this blog shows, I’ve failed miserably.   I was at a used book store when I came across this book, an alternate reality to WWII where the Allies lose and the United States is occupied by the Japanese and Germans. Seemed like a good way to dip my toe in the water after a lifetime of reading about actual wars.

The first hundred pages were all I’d hoped for. Himmler, Goebels and Gorring competing for power, Africa destroyed by Nazi genocide, the Japanese colonizing the West Coast. Just as Americans picked over the cultural corpse of Native Americans by collecting trinkets like dreamcatchers or feather headdresses, the Japanese create a market around kitschy relics of a lost American civilization in the form of Mickey Mouse watches and Civil War muskets.

What would it be like to be on the other side of history? The vanquished instead of the victor, learning some other language, worshiping a foreign God and having to carefully show reverence to your new superiors and their customs. Something as simple as handshakes replaced with bowing would constantly irritate me I’m sure. What if the West were obliterated? I felt a bit queasy just reading about it, which naturally gives way to empathy for any conquered or oppressed people.  I’m as self-absorbed and unimaginative as anyone so it’s easier to empathize when the hypothetical scenario involves me or people like me.  So far so good.

This book was like eating a five star restaurant, beautifully decorated, impeccable service, top flight chef, but then the food comes out and it’s a Big Mac. That’s what the story felt like to me, a long winding intricate road to nowhere in particular. Or in this case to the High Castle.  An A+ concept and setting, with a D- narrative thrown on top.

The literary equivalent of the Talented Mr. Ripley, a movie with near perfect actors, scenery, casting, music and costume, but a story that doesn’t ask the viewer to give a damn about Tom Ripley or any of the other characters, much less the outcome (if there even is one)?

Back to real wars for a little while.

Philip Gourevitch: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

The quote on the cover is apt: “a staggeringly good book.” This is a cutting political dissection of Rwanda from before it was even conceived of to modern times, with the horrific genocide of 1994 the unfortunate climax in this story.  The salient point is that Rwanda and by extension Africa isn’t a hapless mess, but a complex web of competing interests. In the case of Rwanda the country didn’t succumb to barbarism, there is a clear party at fault which is the Hutu supremacists, the perpetrators of the genocide.

There’s a tendency to write off the continent altogether since it seems blighted by war, poverty, dictators and dysfunction. There’s truth in that, but the reality is that the people aren’t amoral savages destined to Hobbesian brutality; they just happen to live in places with a web of competing and conflicting groups and interests, not unlike a Europe of  500 years ago (or even 25 years ago in Yugoslavia). Even an insane situation like genocide can’t be attributed strictly to homicidal barbarism. There is a logic to it and a brutal pursuit of self-interest at play.  Rwanda is decipherable if you pay close attention and anything decipherable is also workable, which is the good news.

The unfortunate truth is that no country and even no individual person can rely on others to save them when in need. To quote The Streets:

“No-one’s really there fighting for you in the last garrison. No-one except yourself that is, no-one except you.  You are the one who’s got your back ’til the last deed’s done.”

When staggering evil is unleashed and you assume that surely someone will realize this and do something, that something might not happen. In the case of Rwanda there was an assumption, or at least a hope, that individual Hutu’s might restrain themselves from killing, that other African nations, the United Nations or the USA would intervene.

Unfortunately it was not in the interest of anyone to risk anything to prevent the Tutsi from being slaughtered, aside from themselves. Individual Hutu found it safer to follow orders, even when it meant hacking your in-laws to death with a machete. The United Nations did not have members willing to fight for the Tutsi, nor did the USA, which was still reeling from the killing of 18 marines in Somalia. The French even sent in troops to aid the butchers as it was somehow calculated that it was in their self-interest. The only salvation for Tutsi’s were other Tutsi’s, as those exiled in Uganda were able to mount a successful invasion of Rwanda and come to their rescue.

The conundrum for Rwandans today is that they must cooperate and identify first as Rwandans, not Hutu or Tutsi, if the country is to function and anyone is to prosper.  This requires an enormous level of trust, especially when you know the other side has the potential to obliterate you and has tried to recently. If you can’t trust anyone else, how do you then build trust? The good news for Rwandans in all of this is that they at least know they can’t count on the USA, the United Nations or anyone else for guidance or salvation. If they want the country to work and to prosper, only they can truly figure it out.

Currently the country is a dictatorship run mostly by Tutsi’s, who form only about 15% of the population. The human rights record is poor, as opposition and free speech are not tolerated. However, the life expectancy rate has doubled, the economy is doing well and child deaths are much lower. It isn’t an ideal situation as people should be able to speak freely or run for office.

At the same time it’s a logical arrangement as it’d be asking a lot of Tutsi’s to cede power to Hutu’s, akin to Jews handing the reins to Germans in 1955, as would be the case if a free election were held. The objective is to create and instill a Rwandan national identity that supersedes an ethnic identity. When this project is complete and a level of trust is established, there’d be minimized risk that more freedom would lead to violence. In the meantime a Tutsi government ensures the Hutu, if tempted, can’t repeat their mistakes of the recent past.  As with Europe post-WWII the solution to unbearable violence is to expand the concept of who “us” is and hopefully there will be a realization that violence is in nobody’s interest. It isn’t perfect, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and it seems like a Rwandan solution from those who know best the realities of their own country.

I can’t rate this book highly enough if this is a subject that remotely interests you.

Gwynne Dyer: ISIS, Terror and Today’s Middle East – Don’t Panic

Gwynne Dyer is a Middle-East expert and long standing owner of the most ghoulish head shot in print media. Seriously, they can’t find a better picture? Guess not. Makes Rex Murphy look handsome.

Like practically everyone I’m a bit Jihaded out. It’s like reading a comic and no longer caring that Nick Fury is about to go back in time to kill Hitler. The invisible woman and the guy with super long arms, you had me, but this is too much! Osama Bin Ladin wanting the United States out of Saudi Arabia, fair enough, but the messiah riding in on a white horse to drive back the anti-christ, after defeating the Roman Empire? Really?

Or, as a dude (it has to be a dude) that maintains creepybasement.com wrote about serial killer BTK wearing his victims underwear: “Normally, I try not to pass judgment on the people I write about, even killers. However, this is just too disgusting…I don’t understand it, and I hope I never do.”  Whatever the reason for shooting teens at an Ariana Grande concert, I take the CreepyBasement.com approach that sometimes something is so odious that you know it’s sick and the particulars of why are irrelevant.

If I have to keep up on something so odious, I’d rather read a detached and contextualized account, as Dyer presents here. It isn’t sensational like your average CNN ISIS update on some poor hostage getting his head cut off or threat #1592 to slaughter the infidel.

Gwynne Dyer senses that there is a need for some perspective rather than daily insanity and Don’t Panic, a short history that traces the origins of ISIS from the Iraq War (II) up until 2015, provides this.  The central thesis is that the Islamists require a foreign intervention or hatred of Westerners to inspire Muslims to take up their cause. Whether it’s Russia in Afghanistan, the U.S. in Iraq or Jews in Israel, he argues convincingly that the Jihadists want and need infidels to meddle so they can rally the population to their side.

I think there’s obvious truth in this argument and it is important not to take the Jihadist bait at every cast. Still, even if the West basically ignored them and stayed out of the Middle-East, the Jihadists will always manufacture some sort of grievance, legitimate or not, and attempt to kill and antagonize. After the first Iraqi war the Americans did not occupy Iraq for Dyer’s stated reasons and they defended Muslims in the Balkans. In return they got 9/11. So the question is how to slow down the Islamists without also inspiring more people to join their cause? The best argument I’ve seen is to allow secular thugs like Sadaam or Assad to suppress them. Not an admirable position, but as Obama learned in Syria, there’s no third option available. Maybe provide an air strike if things get real bad, but that’s about it.

Personally I think the battleground is one of ideas and I think the West has done a horrible job articulating the merits of liberalism. Liberalism is not about iphones and strippers, it is about freedom.  George Bush II attempted to make this argument and I think he was sincere, but the freedom he preached was hard to square with a massive invasion. Likewise Steve Bannon sees a war between Christianity and Islam, but there is nothing underpinning his side of the war, since the majority of the West is no longer even Christian. Trump himself isn’t Christian and he is a manifestation of everything rotten that liberalism allows: materialism, ego-centrism and vacancy of mind and purpose.  Suicidal post-modernism is also not useful as shooting teens at a pop concert or removing girls genitals isn’t alright and believing it is amounts to suicide.

This is where I think Dyer goes astray. His argument is that the Middle-East is a tiny portion of the Earth and insignificant to the West. We should just ignore it like you’d ignore a bee and it won’t bother you. Even if you get stung, best just to move on. Terror attacks aren’t car crashes or bee stings though, they are political acts.

If it is a war of ideas you need to offer up a strong counter-point and some of the ideas, for example, held by British Muslims, population 2.7 million, are horrific.  Terror attacks stemming from such ideas aren’t meaningless like a car crash, they are the outward manifestation of political beliefs. If these ideas gain sway there will be sectarian violence, as we see in the Middle-East and now frequently in France and Britain.  To call out these ideas, as citizens do, is derided as racist, but I’ve yet to see a Western politician articulate their side of the argument with conviction. Dyer doesn’t seem to see this as necessary either.  It shouldn’t then be shocking that, when this responsibility is abdicated, the worst manifestation of liberalism, who happens to be speaking truthfully on this issue, is elected.

Julius Caesar: The Gallic War

In his early thirties Julius Caesar is said to have looked upon a statue of Alexander the Great and felt miserable. At the same age Alexander had already conquered much of the known world. What had Caesar accomplished? He’d served as a priest, raised a fleet to crucify pirates, had a gay love affair with a foreign king (allegedly), and was responsible for governing part of Spain. If your benchmark is Alexander though, this is small potatoes. What kind of person is so ambitious that their standard is the greatest conqueror ever known?

Caesar left that statue and went back to Rome, where he was elected consul, serving with two others as rulers of Rome.  As happens in politics things got tense and Caesar deemed it wise to leave Rome to earn glory and money (he was a bit broke) as Governor and military commander of Gaul . I’d equate this to the modern politician who leaves office to do speaking tours, write a book and be on the board of directors for a few companies. Raise your profile and make lots of money, but stay out of the fray.

Thus in 58 BC Caesar exits politics to cement Rome’s authority over Gaul, which is basically all of modern France, Belgium, Northern Italy and parts of Spain. Rome had been in Gaul for over 70 years, but did not exactly have a firm command of the territory. Only 50 years previous a barbarian tribe, the Cimbri, had marched from northern Europe through Gaul and terrorized the Romans.

This book is Caesar’s account of his attempt to conquer and subdue Gaul from 58 to 52 BC and to gain the sort of glory that would put him in the echelon of Alexander. Caesar recounts numerous wars with individual Gallic tribes. When I hear the word tribe I think of a few thousand people, but the Gallic tribes were massive, often able to deploy nearly 100,000 men for a single battle. This is real life Game of Thrones as everyone involved, within their own clan or externally, vies for dominance over the others through all manner of subterfuge and gamesmanship.

Caesar is able to crush individual tribes in huge battles, but must use all of his political savvy to attempt to control them and prevent future wars. It is impressive how adaptable he is and how well he understands the human psyche. When he catches a tribe leader plotting against him, Caesar has the sense to simply forgive him, as the alternative leader is worse. In another instance he cuts off the hands of an entire rebel army rather than kill them, so as to leave a permanent reminder to their neighbours not to mess with Rome. In a siege he has the sense to divert an entire river, cutting the enemy town off from water. Whatever the situation calls for he adapts and uses all of his abilities to solve the problem.

With his own troops, often fighting far from home and against long odds, he is a true leader. When he senses that they are fearful, he knows what to say. If words seem insufficient, he picks up a a sword and shield and leads them to battle.  He knows when to push and when to ease off. He often references the advantage of battles where those fighting can be seen by their own side since the peer pressure prevents cowardliness and inspires bravery.

In the end the Gallic tribes fighting individually fail to defeat Caesar.  Vercingetorix, a tribal leader appeals to the Gauls to join forces behind him. As he states, it was accepted that one tribe would attack another; the Cimbri had sacked most of Gaul not long ago. The difference though, is that while they raped and pillaged, they also left. The Romans didn’t intend to leave though, they intended to rule.  Gaul, always warring with one another, stood together to fight the Romans, their own White Walkers. The final battle is as massive as it is conclusive.

What is striking is how terrifying living in this era would have been. As Caesar states “what is out of sight disturbs men’s minds more seriously than what they see.” Damn near everything in this era is out of sight.

One tribe, the Helvetti, feel like they are geographically constrained, so burn all of their own villages and crops (so they can’t change their minds) and decide to migrate. All 300,000 people give up everything they have and simply march in another direction, hoping for good fortune. Imagine all of Switzerland burned to the ground, its citizens simply picking up and walking East. Except most of the ancient Gauls probably hadn’t traveled more than 50 kilometres and were entirely ignorant of what existed in the world outside these limits.

Caesar at one point decides that tribes in Britain are helping his enemies, so builds boats to take an army across the English Channel. The unknowns involved are incredible. This mission involves traversing an unknown ocean with rudimentary ships, finding a safe harbour to land over 50 ships and then fighting whatever people live there, with almost no food. At one point all of the Roman ships are shattered due to weather.  So the Romans are stuck on a British beach with minimal food and the enemy literally swarming above them. The only option is to fight these unknown people of unknown numbers. Oh and these people are blue (they dye their skin) and fight on horses equipped with a kind of chariot sidecar nobody has ever seen. When the Romans first fight Germans it is noted that they are physically massive compared to the shorter Romans and are half-naked, the rest covered only in animal skins.

Imagine being an average person in Uxellodunum and the Romans are besieging your city. You know that a previously besieged city ran out of food, but your leaders have planned ahead and you have enough food to last years, if need be. One side of the town is mountain and the other a river, behind which are massive fortifications. The Romans shouldn’t be able to breach the walls. You should be safe. But a short while into the siege there is less and less water. Eventually the spring running under the city runs bone dry. The options are to die of thirst or open the gates to the Romans.

Overall the book doesn’t provide much in the way of historical context so it helps if you know a bit about Roman history already. Dan Carlin’s podcast series on Rome is a perfect prelude to this if that’s your thing.  In the book itself you don’t feel as though you are reading something written by Caesar as it isn’t written in first person and doesn’t provide insight into his own internal thinking, only what he did and the rationale for these actions. It was easy to get lost in repetitive minutiae at times.

The ambition of Caesar is incredible. Whenever an option presents itself he opts for immediate action, often taking insane risks in pursuit of greater glory.  Alexander did more at a younger age, but Caesar left a much larger imprint. He likely wouldn’t be dissatisfied that someone 34  is blogging about him in 2017 and feeling a bit inadequate.