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Friday, September 30, 2011

ITS A FAMILY AFFAIR

I suspect that most of us have family members who make us wince - the aunt who pretends she doesn’t drink,  the uncle with the odd hygiene habits, and the nervous cousin who never went to college and yet seems to have a rather specific field of chemistry knowledge. If you are so afflicted by relativity, it may be helpful to remind yourself that that at least your family isn’t stark raving mad. And even if they are,  then at least one of them doesn’t think he is royalty. And if one of them does thinks she is a queen, then you can thank God they are not actually royalty. And in the unlikely event that they are actually royalty, well then, at least you can thank heaven they aren't "Herod The Great”. He was also known as “Herod the Builder”, and “Herod the Fecund”, but  he was  probably best known as “Herod the Paranoid Homicidal Maniac”. But then, as I said, no family is perfect, right?Herod (above) was a second son and he certainly didn’t seem destined to be great. But then, neither did he seem destined to be crazy, either. But he was both. At 25 he had a wife (Doris) and a child (Antipater) and an easy job. He was in charge of Galilee, a poverty stricken back water province of the Roman Empire. But then his father was murdered (poisoned), and his older brother committed suicide (he bashed his own brains out). That promoted Herod to the job of King.  And then in 40 BC a rebellion overthrew Herod. Any less of a lunatic would have taken the hint and retired, but Herod refused to accept the harsh reality. With a little help from Rome (the Senate officially elected him “King of the Jews” - without asking the Jews, of course), in 37 BC Herod returned to Palestine, murdered the usurper and took back his throne. By this time he had divorced his dear Doris. So, to reinforce his ties to the religious fanatics (always a good idea in the Middle East) Herod now married the teenage daughter of a priest. Her name was Mariamne.Trying to keep peace within his new family, in 36 BC, Herod appointed his new brother-in-law High Priest. But two years later the new brother-in-law had a little too much to drink at a party and said something offensive about.Herod, to Herod.  So, Herod had the  brother-in-law water-boarded to death right in front of the guests. It seems homicide was Herod's new "normal:".  Then in 29 B.C. Herod had his wife Mariamne executed because he suspected she was conspiring against him. And if she had any brains, she was. Then, when his now ex-Mother-in-Law said Herod was so nuts he was  “unfit to rule”,  he had her eliminated too. Then in  28 B.C. Herod had his other ex-brother-in-law (and the husband of his daughter) executed. And because he was now out of in-laws, in 23 B.C. Herod married his third wife, Miriamne II (And then a fourth wife, a Samaritan girl named Malthace, followed by a fifth wife, known as Cleopatra of Jerusalem). Herod now had enough in-laws to drive anybody crazy -  not that he needed an excuse. His nuclear family tree was starting to look like it had reached critical mass.As was to be expected, by 12 B.C., Herod had become convinced that his sons by Miriamne I, Alexander and Aristobulus, were out to murder him. Again. if they had any brains. they were.  Anyway, the Emperor Augustus talked Herod out of killing his sons immediately. But when Herod got hold of a conspiracy theory he was like a paranoid dog in taxidermy school - he was convinced everybody was after his bones. It took him five years but Herod finally compiled enough evidence to convince Augustus that the he, Herod, King of the Jews, was never going to let the matter drop. So with the Emperor’s reluctantly acceptance, both of Miriamne I’s sons were tried and executed in 7 B.C. That left Antipas, his son by Doris (remember her?) as the next in line to the  throne. And in keeping with the tradition of dedicated paranoids running Israel and Palestine, in 4 B.C. Herod had him executed, too.
What happened next must have left Herod speechless. He died - of natural causes, in his own bed. I'll bet nobody in the Middle East saw that coming. After his passing, Herod's kingdom was divided between his son Phillip (by Cleopatra) and his sons Archelaus and Antipas (by Malthace). But it was Herod Antipas who managed best to carry on his father’s high standards for familial homicidal lunacy, when he divorced his wife to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias.
It may have been a "love match" (we can certainly hope) but it also ticked off his brother Archelaus, and two other people Antipas really didn’t want to have ticked off  at him. First, it angered Antipas' ex-father-in-law, King of Nabtea, who promptly declared war on Antipas. And second, it offended a local religious fanatic you may have heard of, John the Baptist. John condemned the marriage not only because Herodias had been his brother’s wife, but also because the new bride was Herod Antipas’s half sister. This family tree has a million branches, and  not one of them is straight.It was a typical Herodian Family Feud. You see the lady at the center of this scandal, Herodias, had already produced a daughter with husband number one.  The daughter was named Salome, and not only was Herod Antipas her uncle but he was also now her stepfather. The situation made Herod Antipas a bit sensitive to criticism, and he threw John the Baptist in jail, just to shut him up. And that was when, according to scripture, Salome did her little dance and dropped her seven veils. Her step-daddy Antipas then asked what he could do to thank her for the performance, and Salome suggested, probably at the urging of her mother Herodia, that he could give her the head of John the Baptist: prophet on  a plate, blue plate special. It seems a little strange that Josephus, who never met a tall tale he didn’t like, never mentioned this one, but it’s in the bible and I guess that means it just must be true. And the truth is, I’d believe just about anything crazy about this family.
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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

ZOG, THE BOY WONDER


I can’t define the line between sanity and insanity, but I know it when I see it. I could see it in Kurt Vonnegut, who was pushed to the precipice of that line as a POW in Dresden during WWII. Vonnegut stayed mostly on the sane side, in part by fictionalizing his experience in the novel “Slaughterhouse Five”. David Hamel, saw many of the same horrors at Dresden, also as a POW, but in dealing with the terrors he saw, he went sailing over that line in a single bound, and he never looked back.
It is hard not to compare Hamel to a character from a Kilgore Trout novel. Trout was Vonnegut’s mythical and mystical science fiction writer. In his own novel “Breakfast of Champions”, Vonnegut wrote, “Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.” Well, David Hamel ate the sugar, and he may have suspected the champagne, but he died at 81 having produced only a lot of excrement. He loved his wife and he hurt as few people as possible. That may qualify him for sainthood, but it did not, as many people think him, make him a genius.
According to David Hamel, on Sunday, October 21, 1975, he was watching the TV show “The Waltons” with friends in his home outside of Vancouver, British Columbia, when he was contacted by two aliens from the planet “Kladen” who appeared out of the snow on his television screen. Unseen by the others in the room they zapped him across time/space to their spaceship,  where they communicated their science to him, telepathically. They said they were entrusting him with the “survival of the species”. Hamel explained, “They planted these drawings in my brain. They gave me all the instructions I needed. It is now up to me to make it work.” But thirty-two years later,  David Hamel died without ever making it work, even with the enthusiastic assistance of several determined acolytes. Evidently the aliens did NOT give him all the assistance he needed. How incompetent of them.
Hamel fiddled in the Quonset hut (above) in his backyard for decades and sent dozens of drawings of the resultant “alien inspired technology” to the patent office in Toronto, in a deluge of “perpetual motion” machines, “pollution free endless energy machines” and “anti-gravity machines”. However, the Canadian engineers and scientists at the patent office deemed his solutions to these fundamental conundrums to be unworkable. How incompetent of them, too.
When asked by one true believer how his spaceship would work, Hamel replied, “F--king energy.” Well, to be more specific, some “f--king” combination of magnetic energy, vibrations and granite spheres would combine, he insisted, to make his “spacecraft” weightless. “Do you understand now? Or are you just stupid”, David would then ask.  To the true believers that question was more proof of Hamel’s genius. But I think it actually proved that the actual answer to Hamel’s question was yes, they were just stupid, and desperate to believe in somebody or something.
Dozens of people have tried to build the 45 gallon drum sized, magnet driven, flying machine designed by the aliens and transmitted through Hamel (above). Universally they have failed to get it off the ground. Perhaps they are all incompetent, but by this time competency seems almost irrelevant to the issue at hand, which is sanity.
One believer spent 12 years collaborating with Hamel, and $5,000 of his own money on an 8” version of the device. When last heard from he was still saying he needed another $7,000 to build a version big enough to actually work. Neither the believer nor Hamel offered  an explanation as to why model airplanes function but models of this flying saucer do not. Another supplicant spent a month working closely with Hamel, invested his life savings, was even divorced by his wife, and yet remains still earthbound. And still he believes in the genius of David Hamel. It makes the faith of the Hebrews almost seem passive.
David Hamel believed that Stonehenge was a landing site for UFOs -  never mind the big rocks scattered in the way. He believed the Dead Sea Scrolls were alien instructions on how to achieve certain alternate realities, written perhaps by some bronze age Hebrew Timothy Leary (and what will our ancestors make of the real acid head?)
David Hamel believed in Atlantis, and never mind the evidence of Santorini and Crete. David Hamel believed that the key to the Bible, The Torah, the Koran and even the Book of Bonkinism (“Cat’s Cradle”), was revealed in a spider’s web. David explained, “Did you ever see a spider weaving his web, and then suddenly jump horizontally to another branch without any apparent gravitational forces affecting him? This is the scalar….The spider rides the scalar of the earth.” There was no mathematics, no suggestion on ways to prove the reality of the scalar.  And any attempt to discuss air density on the body of spider was dismissed by David as all lies. He might as well have been a Tea Party member discussing a flat tax. David also said, “They (the aliens) were eating my peanut butter to teach me a lesson”.  And he said,  “The end of the world is not far off, and we need some of us to survive. Otherwise, all is lost.”  It's an interesting philosophy; either we live or we all die.  And the meaning is....?
Well, it’s clear that something was lost. And I think most of us know what it was; David Hamel‘s sanity. There is no indication that Hamel weaved his fantasy for profit, because he never made a profit. And this  puts him in a different category from Vonnegut, the author, who left behind a small fortune. Two books were written about David but he never wrote one himself.  And while Vonnegut, POW survivor,  used his fantasies, David  Hamel, POW survivor, was used by his fantasies. Vonnegut knew how seductive insanity can be (“God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater”) so I think he would have sympathized with David Hamel. But there is a difference between sympathy and respect. To join in the fantasies of the insane is not a show of respect.  So do we laugh at David Hamel or do we cry?
I figure we are all in pretty much the same situation as the Kilgore Trout character (“Breakfast of Champions”) named Zog from the planet Margo. Now, Zog resembled a human, but he communicated by farting and tap dancing. According to Vonegut, “Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golf club.” Zog certainly meant well. But if it was your house on fire, what would you have done?
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Sunday, September 25, 2011

GENIUS - THE FIFTH WEEK OF MAY, 1863

FRIDAY MAY 29, 1863
Today in Georgia, the Macon Telegraph newspaper publishes the latest news from Vicksburg (above). It is already a week old. “From the Northern accounts as well as our own, it is clear that all our defenses on the Yazoo were abandoned to the enemy...and that the town proper is held only by Pemberton and his little force, closely invested by the Yankee fleet to the front and by Grant's army on the other three sides. We have not the slightest intimation of the whereabouts of General Johnston and the main Confederate Army...Unless Johnston can raise the siege by defeating Grant, or cutting his communications, it is evident that the fall of Vicksburg is a question only of time.” The next day the same newspaper will carry the Governor's call for the citizens of Georgia to collect weapons for home defense.
SATURDAY MAY 30, 1863
General John McClernard (above) issues his General Order 72. It begins,  “Comrades: As your Commander, I am proud to congratulate you upon your constancy, valor and success. History affords no more brilliant example of soldierly qualities. Your victories have followed in such rapid succession that their echoes have not yet reached the country. They will challenge its grateful and enthusiastic applause....” He continues in this vein for several paragraphs, recounting the campaign exploits of his corps.
But then, running short of superlatives, McClernard begins to compare his men's exploits favorably to the efforts by soldiers in the rest of the Union army. “Yourselves striking out a new path, your comrades of the army of the Tennessee followed, and a way was thus opened for them to redeem previous disappointments...General Logan's division came up in time to gallantly share in consummating the most valuable victory...The Forlorn Hopes of the Twenty-second ascertained, to their cost...they were still a long way from victory....and after a sanguinary and obstinate battle, with the assistance of Gen. McPherson's corps...”
It was classic McClernard; bombastic, hyperbolic, verbose and clumsy. But he was just trying to raise the spirits of his men, after the failed attacks on the 22nd. He closed with,  “I join with you, comrades, in your sympathy for the wounded and sorrow for the dead. May we not trust -- nay, is it not so, that history will associate the martyrs of this sacred struggle for law and order, liberty and justice, with the honored martyrs of Monmouth and Bunker Hill. JOHN A. McCLERNAND, Major-General Commanding.”
Almost immediately, copies of the proclamation reach the press traveling with the army. and are then carried back upstream to the newspapers nationwide. The staffs of General Sherman and McPherson are infuriated at the slights to their soldiers in the proclamation. And as if in a choreographed dance, over the next week each group prepares an infuriated protest. Sherman and McPherson each file their own personal protests. Grant writes, "I cannot afford to quarrel with a man with whom I am obliged to command.” Still he waits until June 18th, after excepts from McClernand's proclamation appear in the New York Times.Then Grant publicly takes the position that McClerand's proclamation is a direct violation of his standing order – clearly aimed at  McClernand – that all press releases are to be made through Grant's staff. It is an unfair charge, as McClerand did not directly release his proclamation to the press. But the Illinois politician turned General has played these games himself for two years. And now, like Vicksburg, he has been isolated and trapped. On June 18, 1863 Grant finally uses the power given to him by Hallack back in January, and relieves General McClernand. Lincoln's doppelganger is gone.
SUNDAY MAY 31, 1863
On this day, William Christie, serving in a Minnesota artillery unit describes the siege to his father in a letter home. “This morning at three o'clock, the batteries of Gen. Grant's army at his place, opened at once on the doomed city of Vicksburg.... Now, just stand with me on the point where our battery is placed, and see the vivid flashes of the fuses, like lightning, and the showers of shell, as they made their quick curves through the air, hissing and hurtling, and finally exploding with a report almost as loud as the gun. The air waved like the sea, and vibrated with a hoarse murmuring sound...Boats on the river and the flash of their shots, were seen on the background exactly like lightning...we kept up the cannonading for over an hour....” William is not describing another grand assault, just the routine, methodical, daily, deadly business of a siege. The navy alone fires 22,000 shells into the city over the next 43 days. The army fires far more.
The citizens of Vicksburg dig 500 caves, large and small, into the sides of the gullies. Union troops take to calling Vicksburg "Prairie Dog Town."  Food inside the city runs short. The garrison eats its horses and mules and dogs, and,  eventually,  even its shoes. Only about a dozen civilians are killed in the bombardment. But the anxiety and lost sleep drains the defenders. But in the end,  the ultimate limiting factor is water. The siege lasts 43 days. There is no sustained rain during that entire period.
General Johnston slowly gathers men in Jackson and eventually edges towards the Big Black River. But along the river he is faced by a new union corps, commanded by Sherman. Johnston is cautiously probing for an opening in the first week of July, when Vicksburg surrenders, on July 3, 1863. Five days later Port Hudson also surrenders. And two weeks later, General Sherman's reinforced corps retakes Jackson, Mississippi for the final time. For Grant it is a clean sweep.
In the siege of Vicksburg, Union causalities were about 10,000 while Rebel dead, wounded, missing and captured were almost 33,000.  In Vicksburg Grant also won 172 cannon and 50,000 rifles, which could never again be used to defy Federal authority. In one spring campaign Grant has achieved what seemed over the winter, to be impossible.
Grant began his own account of his campaign with the following words; “The campaign of Vicksburg was suggested and developed by circumstances.” In other words there was no detailed plan. There was only the determination to come to grips with the enemy and fight him. When matched with Grant's mastery of the fundamentals of logistics - supplying and supporting troops in the field - it was simply an unbeatable combination.
Others have been more impressed. “During the 17 day period after the landing at Burinsburg, Grant’s Army…marched 180 miles and won five major engagements…inflicting 7,200 casualties to 4,300 of his own, pinned Pemberton’s army inside the defenses of Vicksburg, and with his right flank now anchored on the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers north of the city, reestablished his communications and supply…Those who think of Grant as a butcher need to examine this masterpiece of operational art.” (Mackubin T. Owens, U.S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island.)
Grant would later observe; “All of (Pemberton’s) troops had to be met. We were fortunate, to say the least, in meeting them in detail…” This was, of course no fortunate accident. Grant achieved this amazing feat because he never lost sight of his objective. Grant could not have known before he crossed the Mississippi that Pemberton would play into his hands, although he may  have suspected it,  given Pemberton’s reactions to the maneuvering during April. Still, the resolve to make the crossing was all Grant's. And the drive to move and keep moving after the initial landing, was all Grant's as well.
There was a fundamental mistake made in the defense of Vicksburg, and (amongst others) General Joe Johnston; thought he knew what it was  “An immense entrenched camp requiring an army to hold it, had been made,  instead of a fort requiring only a small garrison." But Port Hudson had been just such a fort and it fell as well. 
The core problem in defending Vicksburg is the same faced by all fortresses, even Gibraltar itself. They require an army in the field to defend them – generals and soldiers and teamsters and all the sinew of war. And Vicksburg had little of that sinew. The destruction of so much as one mile of irreplaceable track on the Vicksburg and Jackson Railroad reduced the value of Vicksburg. Pemberton knew this. But why did he not abandon the position, as General Joe Johnston urged him to do?
What hindered Pemberton was Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In the words of a recent historian, Davis was, “a poor judge of character…” I would add that Davis was a martinet, with a blind adherence to the form rather than the function of command. All that Davis could see was that Vicksburg must be held. And if that was an impossible task, it was still a task the Confederate President was required to ask of his generals. But Davis had been in Washington when the war had started. In the words of Bruce Catton, he was one of those men who helped to bring on the firestorm, but could do little once it had arrived.
Once the fire had been started there were impossible choices Davis would face, but then he was also one of those who was responsible for creating the impossible conundrum. In the pantheon of “Southern Heroes” Jefferson Davis should not be praised. If, as he said, the Confederacy died of a theory, it was his theory. And all the dead of Vicksburg, on both sides, can be laid at his doorstep, much more so than at the doorstep of the Generals, Pemberton or Johnston.
The hero of this story is much simpler to identify.  Any telling of the Vicksburg campaign of the spring of 1863 must be Grant's story. Between April Fools day and July 4 of that year the two armies suffered 19,232 dead and wounded, a slight majority of whom were Union dead. But at Vicksburg, six weeks after Grant and Sherman stood atop Haynes Bluff , a Confederate army of 31,600 men, with 172 cannon and 60,000 muskets were surrendered to the Union. And Grant was the man who conceived and directed that campaign and who eventually brought the entire war to an end. He was quite simply a military genius, easily the equal of Robert E. Lee.
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