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Friday, August 27, 2010

THE GREATEST POLITICIAN OF ALL TIME

I hear the complaints piling up again, about all the crooked, two-faced, lying politicians. And, this being election season, most of them seem to be coming from other politicians. But it seems to me that the objections and the job description are nearly identical. The rules of politics were first laid down at least 2,400 years ago, and they have not been improved upon since. To be successful a politician must first be elected, and second he or she must be re-elected. And the proof of these simple rules was firmly established by the golden boy of ancient Greek democracy, the man who turned hypocrisy, sycophancy, performance and prevarication into an art form, the greatest politician of all time bar none, Alcibiades Alcmaeonidae. It wasn’t that after Alcibiades they broke the mold, it was that Alcibiades was the mold.
His world was shaped by his uncle and guardian, Pericles (above), who defined a great leader as someone who “…knows what must be done and is able to explain it; loves one’s country and is incorruptible.” Having decided that Athens and Sparta were destined for war, Pericles devised a most unusual strategy. He first displayed this strategy in 430 and again 429 B.C. Spartan armies invaded Athenian territory (called Attica), burned crops and villages and took hostages. But the Athenian army refused to give battle. The lost crops did not worry them because, as Periclies had planned, Athans was relying on their fleet to bring in grain from Egypt and the Ukraine - call it the balance of trade. Pericles’ plan was to frustrate the Spartans by avoiding battle with them until internal political dissent encouraged them to end the war to Athen's advantage. And it might have worked but for one unanticipated event. The plague arrived on the grain ships from Egypt in 428 B.C. and killed perhaps a third of the population of Athens, including Pericles.
The abrupt vacuum at the top of Athenian politics was an opportunity for the young Alcibiades (above). He was a superstar right from the start. First, he was a real Olympic athlete and “the Adonis of Athens…tall, shapely, remarkably handsome, fond of showy attire and luxurious surroundings…” (p 221, Baldwin Project) He was a powerful speaker whose slight lisp made him all the more endearing. And he seduced women and men with equal ease and equally often. He was the Bill Clinton without the scandal attached to the sex.
At 19 years of age, Alcibiades even beguiled that old pedophile Socrates. Reading Plato’s version of their dialogs is like watching a snake charmer with arthritis toying with a hungry python. Socrates began by berating Alcibiades’ youthful arrogance. “You say you do not need any person for anything …For you think you are the most beautiful and greatest” – and then later he fell under Alcibiades' spell, calling him “…the greatest of the Greeks.” Still, Socrates shared his bed with Alcibiades only once; if Athens herself had only been that wise and restrained.
It seems that all that Alcibiades learned from Socrates was that he needed a project worthy of his ambition. And in 415 B.C. Alcibiades suggested a cloak and dagger strike against the island of Sicily, a commando operation to capture Messina and threaten the port city of Syracuse, Sparta’s strongest ally. But Alcibiades’ political opponent in Athens, Nicias, did not want Alcibiades given the chance to succeed. He warned the city council that such an expedition would have to be hugely expensive, requiring as many as 140 ships and 6,000 men. He meant to mock the idea. But to the shock of both Nicias and Alcibiades, the Athenian council voted to fund the massive mission and then placed both Alcibiades and Nicias in charge of it.
Somehow the two foes managed to assemble the huge force. But Alcibiades should have been more worried about Nicias' cooperation, for when they landed outside of Syracuse they found a trireme from Athens had arrived there ahead of them. It seems somebody had gone about Athens and wacked off all the phalluses on all the statues. As soon as Alcibiades had sailed away Nicias' allieas had accused Alcibiades, and the Athenian council had ordered Alcibiades home to stand trial for heresy and treason. It was obvious that Nicias was behind this, and Alcibiades had no intention of putting his fate in the hands of his enemies.
On his way back to Athens Alcibiades jumped ship at Thurii, and boldly contacted the Spartans. He offered them information on the Athenian expedition’s plans to capture Syracuse. When that information proved correct the Spartans warily agreed to allow Alcibiades sanctuary in their city - what a foolish thing to do. 
Alcibiades had made his first betrayal. Once in Sparta, he converted from a luxury loving Athenian into a prime example of Spartan brutality and sadomasochism.
Like any good Spartan politician he began wearing simple clothes and eating cold gruel and exercising in public with the other sadomasochistic Spartans. He advised the Spartans on a strategy that led to the complete defeat of Nicias and the slaughter and capture of his entire Athenian force. In fact Alcibiades had become one of the most respected and trusted Spartans in Sparta - until one morning in 412 B.C. when the Spartan king Agis II came home unexpectedly to speak to his queen and Alcibiades was seen jumping out of her bedroom window. Agis II put out a contract on Alcibiades, and he disappeared, next turning up in Persia, as an advisor at the court of the satrapy Tissaphernes, who had been secretly funding the Spartan war effort. Alcibiades had just made his second betrayal.
Tissaphernes had been hoping to weaken the Athenians. But now he had begun to worry that the Spartans were getting too strong, which is exactly what he was told by his new political advisor, Alcibiades. On his advice the Persians cut back their cash support for Sparta. At the same time Alcibiades put out peace feelers to his fellow Athenians. He convinced them that he could bring the Persians into the war on Athens’ side. Of course Tissaphernes had no intention of committing his forces until both Greek cities were exhausted. But by the time the Athenians realized this, according to the poet Aristophanes, they yearned for Alcibiades even while they hated him. This was to be Alcibiades’ third betrayal.
The Athenian generals made Alcibiades an Admiral, and he engineered an Athenian naval victory at Abydos, near the Hellespont, and burned the little village of Byzantium. After another Alcibiades victory the Spartans sent home a desperate note. “Our ships are lost. Mindarus (the commander) is dead. The men are starving. We do not know what to do.”
In 407 B.C. Alcibiades made his triumphal return to Athens itself, to cheering throngs and the return of his property, which had been seized when he had changed sides and joined Sparta. All the charges still outstanding against him were dropped; but they were not forgotten.
His last betrayal had convinced the Persians to again fully fund the Spartan war effort. And in 406 B.C. Alcibiades sailed with 100 ships on a mission to assist Phocaea, which was under siege from Spartan forces. While making a scout Alcibiades left 80 ships at anchor at Notium under his second in command. But while he was away the fool brought on an engagement with the Spartan fleet, and was soundly defeated. His enemies in Athens blamed Alcibiades for the disaster, and he was forced into exile once again, and this time it looked final.
By 404 B.C. Alcibiades was living in retirement with a mistress in Phyrgia, in what is today central Turkey, in a mountain cabin. In the dark of night assassins set the house on fire and murdered Alcibiades as he rushed out side. Says the Baldwin Project, “Thus perished, at less than fifty years of age, one of the most brilliant and able of all the Athenians.”
Some say it was the Spartans who killed him, and some that it was his Athenian enemies. And some say it was the brothers of a Persian woman he had seduced. If Alcibiades did not fit his uncle’s definition of a great leader, still he had been a successful politician for each of the three great powers of his time – Athens, Sparta and Persia. How could you not consider him the greatest politician of any age?
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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

PARCEL POST

I hate to tell you this, but, contrary to common knowledge, we are the ones living in a “simpler time”, not our parents or their ancestors. We have E-mail, and I-phones and twitter and face-book and every other pseudonymous instantaneous electronic communication device which, with apologies to Socrates, proves that a life under punctuated is a life not worth being self-obsessed about. Sharing every naval-infatuated idea has become de rigueur for the Obama generation. There is no longer room for confusion or miss-interpretation, only for over-interpretation. And that makes the world much simpler.
For the first two million years of human evolution the limit to language was the sum of the speed of sound divided by the speed of walking, divided by the number, width and depth of rivers and oceans, and the height of mountains and width of deserts separating you from the persons you wished to speak to. Those kinds of obstacles and those kinds of delays made the world a very complicated place. When the Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, 1815, the War of 1812 had been over since the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on December, 24, 1814. That was three years you needed to refer to while talking about just one battle, because of the delays in communications. How much more complicated can you get than that?
Mail was the first invention in long distance communications. Cyrus the Great of Persia invented pony express riders to carry “words” to bind his empire together. According to Herodotus these civil service riders were so dedicated that “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”; which is not the official motto of the U.S. Postal Service. The U.S. Postal service has no official motto.
The next major technical advance in communication didn’t come along until 1792, when Claude Chappe invented a ‘semaphone’ network in France. In his sales brochures he called it a “telegraph” (Greek for “far writing”). It required a series of towers spaced 20 miles apart, upon each of which were erected two moveable arms connected by a longer moveable arm. A Chappe telegraph operator repeated the 174 different combinations of arm positions to relay up to two words a minute. Although this was such a dependable system that the Swedes kept theirs running until 1880, Chappe never saw it turn a profit, for two reasons. First he threw himself down a well in 1805. And second, it never turned a profit. Worse yet, for Chappe’s family, he copyrighted every thing about his brilliant invention... except the name.
In 1837 a failed Calvinist minister, a proslavery Federalist, a pedantic anti-catholic and anti-Semitic conspiracy freak and looney named Samuel Fineley Breese Morse, co-opted the name for his “electronic telegraph” which he copyrighted from top to bottom, including the name. The first recorded “Mores Code” telegraphed was “A patient waiter is no loser”, in 1838; the dot and dash equivalent of “The quick bown fox”, etcetera. The more famous message, “What hath God Wrought”, was telegraphed as a publicty stunt in 1844 and was suggested by Anne Ellsworth from my home town of Lafayette, Indiana. She was married at the time to Mr. Roswell, who gave his name to the New Mexico town where, in 1947, aliens attempted to communicate with humans. Their message appears to have been the alien equivalent of “Mayday, mayday, mayday.” So far nobody has answered that message.
The ultimate expression of this more complicated communication is the traditional or “snail” mail service. The complexities involved stagger the imagination. You write a letter. You take the letter to a collection point, a post office or mail box. A representative of the United States Postal Service (your stand in) then physically carries the actual letter to your friend’s home. There, your friend reads your words from the very paper you once held. It sounds fraught with opportunity for delays and errors, and it is. And yet it has worked in America for two centuries. And what is most amazing is that we expect it to work, and complain when it doesn’t.
As of 2008 the 656,000 employees of the USPS (as it likes to refer to itself) processed 667 million pieces of mail every day (7,700 every second). They generated $75 billion in fees and charges, which left them with a $2.8 billion loss. Still nobody (well, a few libertarian lunatics) are suggesting that snail mail delivery cease.
The ultimate complication of this ultimate complication of expression was Parcel Post, in which individuals were encouraged to send not only words from one end of the nation to another, but goods as well. The service was started in 1912 as an attempt to encourage economic development in rural America.
The first flaw in the plan became visible when Postal authorities deemed it permissible to mail live chicks (in special containers) for 53 cents apiece. Now farmers could order chicks from breeders and they would be delivered, cheaply and reliably, right to the farmer's front door. It was a great boon to the egg industry nationwide. But problems arose when some of the little cheepers in ever shipment died in their boxes en route, and the customers sought reimbursement from the Post Office. The rules denied the customer’s appeals, but they appealed anyway. What was not noticed at the time, was the fatal flaw in the logic of “live” parcel post.
The path to Parcel Post ad nauseam was first visible on the morning of February 19, 1914, when Mrs. John E. Pierstroff of Grangeville, Idaho, loaded her four year old daughter, May Pierstroff(above), into the mail car of the Camas Prairie train bound for Lewiston, Idaho, 55 miles away. A few moments later Harry Morris, the conductor, stumbled upon the little girl sitting quietly alone, atop a pile of mail bags. Morris checked the 56 cents postage on the tag tied to May’s coat, and since the mother was no where to be seen, allowed the girl to ride in the mail car to Lewiston. There, mail clerk Leonard Mochel delivered May to her destination, the home of Mrs. Vennigerholz, the girl’s grandmother.
It was the beginning of a disturbing trend. Later that same year postal workers in Stillwell, Indiana accepted a parcel post box marked, “live infant”. They delivered the box to South Bend where the “package” was accepted and opened by the infant’s divorced father. Cost for the trip was 17 cents. The next year a Pensacola, Florida probation officer shipped six year old Edna Neff to her father in Christiansburg, Virginia. The postage was 15 cents.
The public was unsettled by this mailing of children, since the percentage of child molesters amongst the population in 1914 was about the same as it is today. The negative publicity probably prevented another child mailing until 1919, when it appears a press agent for the Aluminum Company of America arraigned for the mailing of five year old Marmi Hood and four year old Evan Hedge to their respective fathers, who were locked down inside in the company’s plant in Alco, Tennessee, surrounded by union picket lines. After a two hour tearful visit, complete with news photographs, the children were “mailed Special Delivery” back to the Alco, Tennessee Post Office, where their mothers were anxiously waiting for them. Postage for the stunt both ways was $2.26 cents.
On June 13, 1920 The US Post Office Department issued new rules, announcing that children would no longer be accepted as a parcel post. The coda to this regulation, and perhaps a comment on the continued poverty in rural America even during the “Roaring Twenties”, was the C.O.D. package mailed to an undertaker in Albany, New York. It arrived on November 20, 1922, and carried no “return address”. In the box was body of a child who had died of natural causes. She was buried “...through the kindness of individuals” under the name of “Parcella Post.” How could you call such a world "simpler" than ours?
As you would expect from people living in such complicated times, the denizens of that ancient confusion were able to predict the problems and solutions faced by our current “simpler" electronic age. It turns out the philosophical antithesis to twitter was written in 1854, not long after the Mores telegraph hinted at the self obsessed simplicity which was to follow.
It was written by that old foggey, Henry David Thoreau. “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys”, wrote Henry David, “which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end…We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” And, what with the current Texas Governor advocating the re-secession of Texas from the union of states, it would appear that our modern politicians are leading the way by getting simpler and simpler all the time.


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Sunday, August 22, 2010

HOW TO END A WAR: PART TWO OF SIX

I am continually amazed that it wasn't until June 22nd, 1945, a year after the Tojo cabinet had collapsed - a year after Japanese leaders realized that they had lost the war -  that the Emperor finally called a meeting of his ‘Big Six" advisers, his official cabinet, to discuss how to get out of the war. He told them openly for the first time , "I desire that concrete plans to end the war, unhampered by existing policy, be speedily studied and that efforts made to implement them." Still, there was no talk of terms, and no effort to "push" the process.
The Japanese options had been reduced to just waiting for the invasion of their most southern island, Kyushu, the next logical target of the U.S. forces, where the Japanese military leaders were convinced they would win the "Big Victory" - that Okinawa was supposed to have been, that the Philippines was supposed to have been, that the Marianas was supposed to have been -  that would bleed the Americans enough to force them to offer better terms.
The terms the Japanese were seeking, at this late point in the war, were; 1) no allied occupation of Japan, or at worst only a symbolic one, 2).any war crimes trials to be in Japanese courts and prosecuted by Japanese officials, 3). retain the military in any Japanese government, and 4) to retain the Emperor, as the religious and political symbol in Japan.  For the generals and admirals, the survival of the Emperor had become a code word for the survival of their own power.
The leaders of Japan, meeting among the wreckage of Tokyo, were certain that a great enough slaughter, mostly of their own people, would drive the Americans to negotiate. And they were certain they could out-negotiate the Americans. Why such clever people were losing the war was a question never asked in public nor in private by the Japanese military leadership. In truth, none of these terms Japan was expecting to get would have been acceptable to the Americans, even a year earlier; with the possible exception of the retention of the Emperor in a symbolic role.
The Japanese plan, when it was agreed upon, was to use the Russians as a conduit to negotiate with the Americans.  And July of 1945 was spent trying to open that conduit.  It  seems never to have occurred to Japanese military leadership that the Russian dictator Stalin would see a weakened Japan, the nation which had humiliated Russia in 1905, as an opportunity too good to pass up. So the military was not suspicious when the Russian response to the requests for meetings seemed slow and dim witted, almost obstructionist. And the niceties of diplomacy slowed everything down even more. But, by the beginning of August, it seemed to the desperate Japanese leadership that some progress was being made with the Russians.
The plans of Japan's rulers did not begin to unravel until August 6th. 1945. Reports began coming in that morning that something unusual had happened in Hiroshima. First reports were of a “blinding flash and violent blast”.  Since no communications came out of the city after that first report, a staff officer was ordered to fly over and provide information. One hundred miles from Hiroshima the staff officer could see a huge cloud still rising from the blazing port ( two hours after the attack).
Surrounding villages were being swamped with vast armies of wounded, burned and simply stunned victims stumbling their way out of Hiroshima.
Relief workers began to press through to the city. Power to some parts of the town was restored the next day, and rail service the day after that. But to all intents and purposes, the core of the city of Hiroshima had been wiped off the map, the port facilities destroyed, and one of Japan's few remaining intact military bases was simply gone. There were at least 80,000 dead. Over the next five years, radiation would raise that toll to nearly 200,000.
The "Big Six" argued about what had happened, with most denying the Americans could even have such a weapon. The debate was settled sixteen hours later when Japanese monitoring posts picked up the broadcast of President Harry Truman announcing to the American people that, "The power of the sun" had been unleashed on Japan, and adding “We are now prepared to obliterate rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have…” It did not seem to be a threat. It seemed rather, to be a promise.
And that might have seemed a powerful threat to make to the Empire of the sun. But one of the "Big Six", Admiral Soemu Toyoda, now argued that even if the Americans really had such a bomb they could not have many more. What he based that opinion on was unclear. But at least three of the Big Six took solace from the Admiral and continued to perfect their plans for their Oriental Gotterdamurung.  It was yet another pure delusion. And in retrospect, it was a delusion that should have been expected.
Even before the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the Americans had crippled Japan. Hundreds of thousands had already been killed, well more than a hundred thousand in one March 1945 Tokyo fire raid alone. No train was safe in daylight, no city or factory safe.  Japanese soldiers in Korea and Manchuria were starving. Troops in Japan were spending as much time tending to rice fields as training. And the harvest so far that year had been very bad. Come winter, invasion or no, there would be mass starvation in Japan, and throughout the Japanese military.
Japan could do nothing to oppose the massive flights of B-29’s, now joined by B-17’s and B-24’s of the mighty 8th Air Force, freed from their conquest of Germany, which were together pounding Japanese cities and military bases, day and night.
And nothing hindered the mass waves of P-51's, P-47's and P-38's  based on Iwo and Okinawa, which were now doing to Japan what they had done to Germany; sweeping across the country at will, striking at "targets of opportunity", destroying and sinking everything that moved, be it a supply or passenger train, a single horse and cart or a poor fishing boat. There was almost nothing left to oppose them. What little remained of Japan's air force was being held back to oppose the landings. Japan's navy was scattered across the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Their cities were being reduced, one by one, to wastelands occupied by scarecrows.
And now, almost as an after thought, an atomic bomb had vaporized one of Japan's cities. And there was a threat of more to follow. And yet the "Big Six" council's only plan remained to wait for the American invasion of Kyushu and kill as many Americans as possible in order to force them to negotiate. About 40% of Japan's remaining military strength had been transferred to Kyushu to fight that battle. But that mass of forces was, in my opinion, and to borrow the words of historian Bruce Catton, describing the Confederate defenses of Fort Donaldson against Grant, "Too little to defend the place, and too much to lose."
Again, Japan failed to inform the Americans what their intentions now were to continue fighting for a better set of surrender terms. And to the Americans it seemed the Japanese were just insane and without logic, an entire nation of kamikazes, in love with death. And since the Japanese were not offering the Americans any alternatives, and since the Americans were not offering the Japanese any terms, there was no way for either side to consider any way out of the slaughter, without more slaughter. And this, a full year after leaders on both sides agreed that the Americans had effectively won the war.
And then, at about four AM on August 9th, 1945, the Soviet Union, which the Japanese leadership had expected to help negotiate a peace, announced they were voiding their non-aggression pact with Japan and joining the Americans in carving up the Imperial Empire. At the same moment Soviet air and ground forces invaded Japanese occupied Manchuria in great numbers and strength.  What remained of Japanese complacency began to finally collapse, not from the bomb, but from the Soviet military.
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