Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Dispatch from Greece: Myth, Tragedy, Resistance, and Hope


(revised from an article published originally at Wrath-Bearing Tree July 2015)

Herodotus begins his great work by tracing the historical origins of the Persian War to myths involving conflict between Europe and Asia, such as the rape of Io and Europa by Zeus, the story of Jason and Medea, and the abduction of Helen by Paris (which sparked the Trojan War). Thus, the first recording of history in the Western tradition begins in myth. History has been called past politics and politics present history; from a certain perspective the origins of many modern political relations and events are rooted in myth. The myths we choose to believe or not believe have real world consequences – they are of critical importance in shaping popular opinions and current events. Nowhere is this clearer than the current situation between Greece and its European creditors.

If Herodotus were to write an account of the current Greek debt crisis, he might well begin where he left off in his Persian Wars, far in the antiquity of Classical Greece, that time when Athens was at the height of its powers, the time most people envision today when (or if) they think about Greek culture. Invaded by the Persians and its wooden Acropolis burned down by the Great King Xerxes, Athens emerged as the victor and rebuilt the Acropolis in marble, an eternal symbol of the potential for human perfection. Athens and Greece were relegated to secondary political status after their subjection by the Macedonians and then the Romans, but any student of the Classics knows those immortal lines of Horace: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artis intulit agresti Latio — “Greece, being captured, captured her savage conqueror, and brought the arts to rustic Latium”. For centuries after, Roman armies and laws ruled their mighty empire, alongside with Greek language (in the eastern half), culture, art, and philosophy. At Rome’s height in the second century AD, the emperors spoke better Greek than Latin; Hadrian was a famous philhellene who rebuilt Greece and Athens on an enormous scale (most of the ruins and remnants we see today date from Hadrian, not from Pericles), and Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher of the Stoic school (who take their name from the porch in the Athenian market where they met).

That same century also witnessed an unparalleled Greek cultural renaissance called the Second Sophistic, which featured a colorful and entertaining cast of literary and rhetorical geniuses. One example was Polemo of Laodicea who was so learned and so arrogant that Philostratus describes in his Lives of the Sophists how “he was said to converse with cities as his inferiors, Emperors as not his superiors, and the gods as his equals”. Another relevant personality from this period is the eminent sophist Herodes Atticus–who was one of the wealthiest private citizens in the history of the Roman Empire and also one of the foremost exemplars of the old but now lost tradition of evergetism–roughly “doing good deeds”. This was a system by which rich patrons gave back to their communities by financing new public buildings (theaters and baths, for example; the Odeon next to the Acropolis is one of Herodes Atticus’ many legacies) and large festivals and games (bread and circuses). This philanthropic practice that placed priority on civic duty declined concurrently with that of the Roman Empire as a whole, and was never to be practiced again by the rich excepting a few rare outliers such as Andrew Carnegie.

Even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Byzantine Empire continued for another full millennium as a fully Greek institution. And after the fall of that empire in 1453 to the Ottomans, Greeks fled West with their books and set off the revival of classical learning which we call the Renaissance. Those singular founders of America were so steeped in Greek history and culture as to base their new country on the best of classical models. The architecture and symbolism of this new country was classical Greek. Most of our political vocabulary is Greek–Aristotle captured the spirit of the Greek idea of politics as a citizen’s public duty with his line “Man is, by nature, a political animal”. Indeed it is the ideal of democracy for all citizens to be aware and involved in politics.

All through the various military conquests of Athens, the Acropolis stood proud and undisturbed, even by the Ottomans who merely declared it a mosque. The extensive damage that it shows today was brought about by a great Western power, the Venetians, in 1687. The name of the Venetian admiral who ordered his cannons to fire on the Parthenon was Francesco Morosini, who was later made doge and still bears monuments to his name, including the horribly ugly central fountain in Heraklion, Crete. It should serve as a lesson in the stupidity of war that such wanton and sacrilegious destruction resulted in only a single year of control of Athens by the Venetians, whence the Ottomans regained and held it for another 150 years. After the locus of European power moved north, to France and Germany after Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire, even for an time to the small island of Britain, Greek and Roman models continued to be the normative political, cultural, and legal models. The somewhat arbitrary gateway to the British civil service was knowledge of classical Greek and Latin, and merely to know those languages allowed one entrance into a cultural and often political elite. Today’s British leaders in the Conservative Party, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, both received private elite classical education, and Johnson in particular is a noted enthusiast of the Classics. Our very idea of education itself is Greek, from the ancient tradition of paideia, which was based on learning grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy, primarily following Homer (and later Plato).

Despite the theft of the surviving friezes of the Parthenon known as the Elgin marbles, which Britain stubbornly refuses to return to Athens, Greeks have generally been Anglophiles at least since the Greek War of Independence (Lord Byron is still a Romantic hero to the Greeks), continuing during the Cretan War of Independence, and especially after the Second World War. It is thus somewhat ironic that Britain is now one of the countries that supports the failed economic policy known as austerity, to the detriment of more publicly-minded countries such as Greece. Meanwhile, those two countries both have very doubtful futures as members of the European Union–Greece because of the short-sighted preference of some of its northern counterparts, Britain because of the short-sighted preference of some of its Conservative politicians.

I needed no excuse to go back to Greece, because like the Emperor Hadrian (who was also the first Emperor to wear a beard), I am a philhellene. I feel vitality in Greece more deeply than anywhere I’ve been, a feeling I could never describe as sublimely as Henry Miller in The Colossus of Maroussi. The sea, the mountains, the enormously ancient and gnarled olive trees, Athena’s gift to her eponymous denizens, dotting the inhospitable macchia landscape combine with a historical and archaeological record so profoundly ubiquitous that nearly every footstep could be footnoted. It’s not for nothing that Xenophon’s cry “The Sea, the Sea!” still has so much resonance for Greeks. Greece feels like a place pulled directly out of the sea by the Titans, but whose Olympian successors could not be bothered to smooth the salty jagged rocks or tame the prickly country, and so left it like that for a hardy race of men to emerge from the stones and dragon’s blood. Perhaps such capriciousness of their gods in some ways led the Greeks to their search for scientific and philosophic knowledge of the world as it is, and their sense of irony and paradox.

In Greece, I have witnessed no signs of defeat about the economic situation–but when they are asked about politics their ready smiles and good-humor palpably give way to various emotions including betrayal, anger, and confusion. At any time of the day, every ATM I have seen since I have been here has unfailingly had a line of people waiting to withdraw the daily minimum allotment of 50 euro in cash. Otherwise, I see little physical difference here than from my previous visits. Admittedly, I am intentionally avoiding a visit to Athens, where protests and rebellion may be more apparent, in favor of a more low-key and touristy part of the southern Peloponnese (incidentally, northern Europeans, mostly Germans with some British, French, and others, make up almost all of the tourists I have observed around me; it is not unusual to be surrounded by hordes of Germans everywhere else in Europe, which is one of many ways to see that Germans have benefitted more than anyone from the EU). I am exploring the Mani peninsula on this trip–the southern-most part of continental Europe which seems like a long finger extending southward down middle of the swollen hand of the Peloponnese. It was described evocatively in a book by the great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor called Mani, in which he recounts a walking tour of this land detailing its rich history and culture. He designed and built his villa overlooking the sea in the village I am staying in, Kardamyli, though it is now degraded and forgotten four years after his death. In fact, the Mani is an area of Greece that has never been conquered, which was fiercely independent and from where the Greek War of Independence began, and whose people still maintain this love of freedom. Most people told me they would rather leave Europe than become slaves to more austerity and selling off of their public land and assets.

Traveling through Greece provides evidence of a relative economic poverty compared to northern Europe and even northern Italy, where I live, but this apparent financial scarcity is augmented by a richness of life that is mostly unchanged since the Mysteries of Eleusis celebrated the sacred cycle of life and death. Compare the public spirit here (where entire villages eat and drink outside in the cool night air) with the tradition of quiet privacy of the Germans and Anglo-Saxons. The image of poverty and public debt in Greece is belied by a strong social cohesion and private wealth that still ranks it among the richer countries of the world. One of the Greek government’s main problems is that private wealth is either moved out of the country or hidden–tax evasion is almost universal here.

There is something both provincial and cosmopolitan about Greeks–a traditional and insular yet fully realized and worldly human society with a long-standing world-wide diaspora. Maybe “universal” is a better word. “Catholic” means “universal”–a Greek word for a church based in Rome that split from the Greek church over the phrase “filioque”–Latin for “and son”. In the middle of the day the sun burns so hot that few people venture outside of the shade, and yet I see Greek Orthodox priests walking in full-length black wool cassocks and long, flowing beards. The current government formed by the leftist Syriza party is the first one ever to refuse the blessing of the Greek Orthodox church before taking office. Despite this, the government has refused calls to open church property to taxation.

The general terms of the recent agreement between Greece and Germany (obviously, Germany is not negotiating alone but as a member of the European Union, along with the unelected and ominously named Troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund, but for narrative reasons I prefer to follow the dominant media trend and reduce the situation to two parties–Greeks and Germans. Germany is, for reasons I will explain shortly, by far the most powerful member of all the European parties), stipulate a raise in taxes, pension and public service cuts, and a massive privatization push that would make Margaret Thatcher blush.

Does Greece have fiscal problems? Yes. Are these problems which have real present effects or are they just numbers in bankers’ ledgers? That answer is not so clear. The amount of public debt in Greece is always cited as the highest in Europe, but it is very low in absolute terms. Much lower than Germany or many other countries, who have also all flouted European Union rules as they have seen fit but never been punished let alone humiliated along the lines of the Greeks. Maybe a more appropriate question could also be “Does debt matter?” In America, there is a debt that dwarfs anything else seen in the world today, created by wars, bad tax policy, and the otherwise harmless realities of modern finance. Does it make a difference to our daily lives, or does anyone really care? No. It is used an economic excuse for a political ideology that calls for privatizing public assets and slashing public expenditures, while simultaneously and counter-intuitively cutting taxes only on huge corporations and the rich. This is called neoliberal economics, and its extreme form is called austerity. It is all a hoax with no economic justification as has been empirically proven and as most professional economists readily admit (apart from the followers of Milton Friedman, who must be either overly stubborn in the face of reality or sponsored with corporate money). What it amounts to is greed, as another economic, John Kenneth Galbraith said, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness”.

Germany has seen its hard-won and much vaunted reputation take a huge hit in the international media during the last agreement with Greece. Why is that? Germany was the loser of both world wars, the first of which led to the second due in large part to the excessive retributive debt commitments imposed by the victorious countries (insisted on mostly by France). After the second war–the worst catastrophe of Western history for which Germany was almost single-handedly responsible–a triumph of diplomacy led by the United States allowed Germany to not only not pay back war reparations but even provided massive economic stimulus to Germany to help rebuild its country and economy. The geopolitic reason for this was to protect the West against the Soviet Union, but the consequence is that the aggressor in that war, like Japan, emerged economically dominant due in larger part to outside circumstances rather than its own natural merits (as they may like to believe). During that war, Germany took over the botched invasion of Greece from its Fascist ally, Italy, and destroyed untold lives and cultural artifacts, plundered resources and forced interest-free “loans”, and caused altogether huge economic losses in Greece that only a full-scale invasion with a sustained resistance can occur. Germany made a paltry payment of $160 million to Greece in 1960 and then closed the book on war reparations. While it is valuable to all parties to move on from the war in the name of the continuing pax Europea, it is disingenuous of Germany to take the harsh line it has on Greece given its own history. This blatant hypocrisy and self-righteousness is one part of the equation that goes beyond money and debt, and touches everyone in an emotional way. Is it right that Germany can squander two or three generations of generally good behavior and thoughtful reckoning with their past history in the matter of a few weeks or months of negotiations? In Europe, old wounds die hard, especially where the Germans are involved.

The debt negotiations with Greece and Germany appear complicated, but in large part it isn’t the finances but rather the uncertainty of political consequences that make the situation seem so labyrinthine. Economically, the amount of money that Greece needs to continue to function properly is relatively small as far as these things go–somewhere around 50 Billion euro from what I can tell. It is a small fraction of the amount of the massive bailouts given by Europe and America to private banks who have profited handsomely with public money. Likewise it is a small fraction of the annual military budget of the NATO countries. The question is not, therefore, economic, but political. I totally agree with many opinions I have read lately, including the recently fired Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, that the goal is not merely repayment of relatively small sums of debt but the humiliation of Greece and a harsh warning to any other country that may rebel and elect a government to challenge the by now entrenched neoliberal consensus. This means especially Spain and Portugal, and to a lesser extent Italy and even France. The European Union and Central Bank have sacrificed democracy and public welfare in the name of authoritative economic control and the guarantee of continued neoliberal policies. For this, they are ready to destroy the economy of one of their members and sell off a large part of its assets at cut-rate prices. It is cruel, and even the IMF has belatedly admitted that it is unrealistic and has no basis in economics

What has the humiliation of Greece caused? Human suffering and resistance. The human spirit cannot be broken by things such as increased taxes and lowered pensions and public services as easily as war and violence, but people’s lives can be made much worse, through little fault of their own, and political apathy and extremism can set in. Meanwhile, the CEO of Goldman-Sachs is fiddling while Europe burns. You see, it was Goldman-Sachs who proposed to the government of Greece a method to hide its debt in return for investments in shady funds, which obviously blew up in the financial crisis. The real criminals are such gambling bankers who exploit and destabilize entire countries and continents while not only avoiding prosecution but actually getting further governmental support and huge bonuses for their work. The problem is not Greek debt. The problem is this system of non-regulated casino banking and the greed of corporate capitalism which puts the interests of shareholders over the interests of the people and the planet and which will most likely be their undoing.

Statistics tell us of widespread unemployment in Greece, but there is little evidence of reduced well-being where I am traveling in the relatively backwoods Peloponnese. My adopted home of Italy is also always cited for its supposed economic woes, but much of it is overblown. Things are far from perfect and serious reforms are deeply needed, but there is a general lifestyle and standard of living that is among the highest in the world. I am obviously a mere amateur observer and by no means an expert in economics and public policy. Greeks all tell me they are proud of their country, as they should be, and for the most part they were ready to leave the European Union if that is what was necessary. This would have been very bad for Greece, but they wanted freedom most of all, especially freedom from humiliation from their ostensible allies. The government of Greece paradoxically chose to agree to the even harsher German-Troika terms immediately after a national referendum voted overwhelmingly against it. For this, Greeks feel betrayed and confused. Now, things will not be any better for them economically than if they had rejected the terms, but now there is an added indignity that they will have no control over their own land.

In Greece today, from my observations, the people are as politically active and involved in their democracy as anyone–at least as much as in Italy where I live, and most certainly more than America. One of the downsides of the debt crisis and increasingly harsh austerity measures is the disengagement from politics from some people and the radicalization of others. It was under such a debt crisis that the conditions arose that allowed the rise of the Nazis. In Greece there is a neo-Nazi party with elected members of Parliament, but which has been outlawed for the time being. With increased desperation and little reason for long-term hope, there is no telling what could happen. For a deeper, more nuanced account of the situation in Greek and the best course of action, I completely concur with Jeffrey Sachs in this article.

The beauty of Greece and the spirit of its people will endure, as they always have, even if economic hard times hang over their future. The future of the European project and the peace and stability it has brought is not so sure, due completely to short-sightedness, greed, and glaring lack of leadership in European countries and its institutions. No one has come out well in this manufactured crisis, including the German coalition led by Merkel, the last four Greek governments (which were Center-Left, Technocratic, Center-Right, and Left), and the small army of European finance ministers and unelected technocrats. The primacy of debt and profit over people (the demos) is today’s foremost myth, and one hopes that this episode reveals this myth for what it is. Greece no longer has the power to overthrow mighty Troy, nor the money to rebuild the Acropolis. Let us hope that somehow a collective spirit emerges as a way out of this fiasco, and the rest of Europe realizes that it is they who are indebted and what it stands to lose.

The Italian Front in WWI: Bad Tactics, Worse Leadership, and Pointless Sacrifice

During this ongoing centenary of the First World War, interest in “The War to End All Wars” has returned, especially in the form of articles and essays. In the English-speaking world, this is almost always focused on the Western Front and the battles featuring Britain or the USA (I contributed to this phenomenon with my essay discussing Robert Graves, Goodbye to Christmas Truces). The contributions of nations on other fronts are largely forgotten in this context. How many people even know which side Romania or Bulgaria fought on, or where Galicia is? The Italian Front is also largely unknown in the Anglosphere, except perhaps to note that it is the setting for Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. After reading Mark Thompson’s The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919 (Basic Books, 2010), I learned a great deal about this important historical chapter, and strongly recommend this book to all readers of history.


The charnel-house of Pasubio, towering over the Venetian plain

I have lived in Italy for 10 years, during which time my passion for history and mountains has served me well. I have hiked up dozens of alpine peaks still crisscrossed with trenches, tunnels, and artillery positions. The World War I front is ubiquitous in northeast Italy, stretching over 400 miles across the Dolomites and Julian Alps from Lake Garda to the Isonzo River in Slovenia. When I was in the U.S. Army I participated in a battalion staff ride to the Asiago plateau north of Vicenza to study the battlefield. As an artillery officer myself I was responsible for researching and giving a presentation to the group about the nature of indirect fire during the war. There are many enormous, Fascist-era charnel-houses along the front holding the mortal remains of tens of thousands or more of fallen soldiers–I have visited these monumental tombs at Asiago, Pasubio, Monte Grappa, and Caporetto several times each, and it is always a sobering experience. Every town in Italy displays a plaque in the public square with the names of those native sons who died in the wars, a dozen or less in the case of the smallest villages. Unlike America, which has not seen war on its own soil since the 1865, the memories of the two world wars live on in a much more profound way in Italy and all the countries of Europe. In Italy’s case, the ostensible “victory” of the First World War make it the source of a continuing myth of heroism. Here’s the truth: Italy’s participation and conduct in that war was a total disaster that led directly to its two decades of Fascist rule, and subsequent defeat in the next world war.

Bad Tactics


Alpini, mountain soldiers still revered today in Italy, climbing up a steep slope to their positions

One notable recent exception to the general lack of English-language recognition of the Italian front is this fantastic journalism by Brian Mockenhaupt in Smithsonian Magazine. In this article the author mainly discusses the extreme winter hardships of the high mountain fighting in the Dolomites and the feats of engineering by both the Italians and Austrians. Despite repeated offensives, almost all by the Italian side, the front throughout the war stayed remarkably stable in something resembling an even more inept version of the trench warfare of the Western Front. The two main sectors were the high mountainous border between the Trentino and Veneto, especially around the Asiago plateau down to Monte Grappa, and the line of the Isonzo (now Soča) River which nearly aligns with the current border of Italy and Slovenia and is characterized by a plateau called the Carso. The first sector is rightly famous for the unprecedented extremes I mentioned before. Indeed, Mark Thompson says in The White War: “The mountain units had to endure fantastically severe conditions. War had never been fought at such heights before, up to 3,500 metres. Fighting in the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and more recently in Kashmir occurred at even greater altitudes, but the soldiers’ experience on the Alpine front remains unmatched.” As for the feats of engineering, this was probably the single strong point of the Italian war effort from 1915-1918, and one has left traces all over the mountains today from the 52 tunnels carved up into Mt. Pasubio, to the cable cars, vie ferrate, trenches, and explosive mining under enemy positions. Otherwise, both sectors of the front still suffered from the same massive errors of strategic and tactical planning and execution that doomed both belligerent countries to such a brutal and dismal struggle.


The blue-green waters of the Soča (Isonzo) as it flows peacefully through the verdant valley of Kobarid (Caporetto)

For anyone who has never been in close proximity to artillery shells landing or machine-guns firing, it is hard to imagine the destruction these modern weapons can cause on unsuspecting or unprepared human beings. Imagine men moving up exposed and difficult terrain into unbreachable barbed wire entanglements, then you will have an idea of the fundamental tactical problem of World War One that led to the stalemate of trench warfare. On the Isonzo Front, the Italians fought 12 large battles along the exact same lines over the course of over two years, involving over a couple million soldiers, a million casualties, and absolutely no change of tactics to face the artillery, machine-guns, and barbed wire. The Austro-Hungarians defended this front extremely well for over two years, very undermanned and under-equipped, giving up very little territory, and inflicting more casualties on their enemy than they received most of the time. In The White War, Thompson writes: “The Italians kept coming, wave after wave, across open ground in close-order formation, shoulder to shoulder, against field guns and machine guns. To one Austrian artillery officer, ‘it looked like an attempt at mass suicide’. Those who reached the deserted Austrian line met flame-throwers, tear gas, and machine-gun and rifle fire emanating from hollows and outcrops on the crumpled Carso. When dusk fell, their only significant gain was a hilltop, wrested from the Polish infantry of the 16th Division.”

The 12th Battle of the Isonzo of October 1917, often called the Battle of Caporetto, was the first and only offensive by the Austrians on this front during the war. It was also a massive and unexpected defeat for the Italians that took back a part of the territory ceded to Italy in 1866 and nearly succeeded in forcing Italy to sue for a separate peace treaty. Superior German forces participated and led the way in this victory, including a vanguard company led by a young Lieutenant Erwin Rommel whose initiative caught much larger Italian forces unawares and helped break the poorly defended Italian lines west of the Isonzo. Thompson writes: “Caporetto was the outcome when innovative tactics were expertly used against an army that was, in doctrine and organization, one of the most hidebound in Europe. The Twelfth Battle was a Blitzkrieg before the concept existed.”

The disaster of Caporetto for the Italians led to the long overdue replacement of the inept  Supreme Commander Luigi Cadorna, and the consolidation of Italian forces along a much more compact and well-defended line of the Piave River north of Venice. This allowed the Italians to bide their time and build up forces for one last offensive against the by-then completely exhausted and hopeless Austrians. This last battle, with the auspicious name of Vittorio Veneto, supposedly washed away forever the stain of Caporetto and the Isonzo (which seem to have been traumatically erased from Italian memory immediately after the war).

Even for someone who spent two years in combat and is well-versed in military history, the stupidity and callousness of the Italian generals is enraging. Sending millions of courageous young men into uphill attacks without effective artillery backup, aerial support, intelligence, or even wire-cutters for the barbed wire is a way to earn the absolute contempt of your own soldiers, as well as the enemy, as well as posterity. Thompson described the front in this way: “Italian losses were increased by sheer carelessness, born of inexperience and also ideology. Many officers disdained to organize their defenses properly because they thought the Austrians did not deserve the compliment. Only tragic experience would expunge this prejudice.”

And again here: “The troops were unprepared, in every sense, for the conditions they faced. Lacking weapons, ordered to attack barbed wire, struck down by typhoid and cholera, poorly clothed and fed, sleeping on wet hay or mud, the men began to realize that they were ‘going to be massacred, not to fight’. Hardly Garibaldian warriors, rather cannon fodder in a new kind of war.”

On the living conditions at the front that never improved in nearly three years: “Sweat, dust, mud, rain and sun turned the men’s woolen uniforms into something like parchment. Their boots often had cardboard uppers and wooden soles. Lacking better remedies, the men rubbed tallow into their cracked feet. Helmets were in very short supply. The wooden water bottles were unhygienic. The tents – when they had them – leaked. The wire-cutters were almost useless, and unusable under fire: ‘mere garden secateurs’, as a Sardinian officer wrote disgustedly in his diary. Ration parties were often delayed by enemy fire. The only hot meal was in the morning, and so poor that soldiers often rejected most of it. The pervasive stench could, anyway, make eating impossible. The effects of such poor nutrition were evident after three or four days in the trenches, and some units sent out raiding parties for food and clothing in trenches that the enemy had abandoned. The soldiers slept on straw pallets, but there were not enough to go around. Even in the rear, before proper hutments were built, the men lived in tents that quickly became waterlogged and filthy. Abysmal medical care led to ‘a good number of avoidable deaths due to inhuman treatment’. Wounded men were routinely ‘shipped on 20 or 30 km ambulance runs on vile roads and then kept waiting for hours outside hospital’.”

Worse Leadership

How did things get so miserable for the Italian side? The answer is an utter lack of political and military leadership. The only person of leadership during this war who comes out well in reading The White War is General Armando Diaz, who replaced Luigi Cadorna after Caporetto and injected basic competence and caution into the war. I cannot recall in any historical period a supreme commander who combined such unchallenged authority and staying power with such complete incompetence. In any other situation, a leader such as Cadorna would have been quickly killed, replaced, or forced into surrender. The less said about this character, who somehow still has streets named after him in Italy, the better.


Luigi Cadorna

I’ll leave him with two succinct descriptions from Thompson’s book: “Worst of all, Cadorna had discovered a knack for abandoning offensives when Boroević [the very capable Croatian general of the Austrian Isonzo forces] had committed his last reserves. The steely exterior concealed a vacillating spirit.”

“Cadorna’s and Capello’s [another inept general] actions in the Eleventh Battle were so careless and self-destructive that historians have struggled to account for them. In truth, the two men acted fully in character. Cadorna’s battle plans always tended to incoherence, his command often slackened fatally in the course of offensives.”

The other, more complex side of the leadership vacuum was political. Cadorna was only able to consolidate such unchallenged power for so long because he answered only to the monarch, still a position of great power in Italy at that time. The monarch was a figure known as Vittorio Emmanuele III, the grandson of the first king of unified Italy, and a weak-willed and morally suspect character. This king nevertheless enjoyed a long reign from 1900, when his father Umberto was assassinated, to 1946, when he finally abdicated in a quixotic bid to save the institution of the monarchy for his son and for Italy. Fortunately, Italy voted in a referendum to abolish the monarchy and establish a republic, and finally vindicating the true fathers of Italy, Garibaldi and Mazzini. Victor Emanuel was so short (4’11”) that he could not wear a real sword, and so his nickname was “Little Sabre”. Italy engaged in at least five foolish wars during his reign, and he was instrumental in allowing Mussolini’s Fascist regime to violently take control of the government and hold it for 22 years.


Mussolini and D’Annunzio in 1925: architects of the “anti-Risorgimento”. Mussolini paid the poet a yearly stipend from 1922 to his death in 1938 for not interfering in politics.

Before Mussolini, there was the fascinating and nauseating character of Gabriele D’Annunzio, a Decadent poet, for a long time the most famous person in Italy, and a bloodthirsty proto-Fascist. Thompson spends an early chapter explaining the importance of D’Annunzio in making the blustery rhetorical case for Italy’s involvement in a war most Italians did not care about. The poet at least backed up his words with actions, as he was given an army commission and entered himself into many battles on his own authority, seemingly getting a rise out of the abundant bloodshed falling for Italy’s sake. This disturbing character does not come out well in Thompson’s account, and rightfully so, I think.

The last aspect of failed political leadership that needs mentioning is the shameful way Italy’s representatives behaved both before and after the war. The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister before and during most of the war, Salandra and Sonnino respectively, ensured that neither its allies nor its enemies respected Italy’s shameful conduct. Italy was actually a member of a secret defensive alliance with Germany and Austria before the war. Italy did not support its allies at the outbreak of war because Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia was not defensive in nature. The Italians stood on the sidelines for almost the first year of the war, playing both sides to get a better deal for its aggressive territorial claims. Everything about the beginning of World War One was tragically absurd, but Italy ended up being the most unnecessarily and nakedly opportunistic of all the belligerents. It wanted Austria to give up large parts of its territory in Trentino, South Tyrol, and Friuli (including Trieste) in return for Italy’s honoring its alliance. When Austria (who was still Italy’s historical nemesis despite this dubious alliance) balked, Italy obtained a secret deal with the England and France called the Treaty of London that guaranteed it would get all the territory it wanted after the war. In the end, Italy’s disastrous human cost of participation in this war can be placed fully in the hands of just three people, according to Thompson–Salandra, Sonnino, and D’Annunzio.

Pointless Sacrifice

Italy’s total number killed was 689,000, the total number of wounded was nearly 1,000,000, and prisoners and missing in action was also 600,000. A huge majority of them occurred on the 55-mile Isonzo front, and Italy, almost uniquely in this war, was only fighting one enemy. The total casualties of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were over three times higher than Italy’s, but that includes the much larger front against Russia as well as Serbia and Romania. For further comparison, Italy suffered more casualties during 3 1/2 years along its only front than both sides of the entire U.S. Civil War, which was the bloodiest in American history.

Ossario Asiago 006.jpg

The War Memorial of Asiago holds the remains of 55,000 soldiers

Again and again, the numbers of men slaughtered in each and every battle was much higher than it should have been given even modest improvements of tactics or basic respect for human life by the officers. At one hilltop near Gorizia, whose importance was only symbolic, Thompson writes: “The conquest of San Michele had cost at least 110,000 Italian casualties over 14 months, including 19,000 dead, on a sector only eight kilometers long.” At one outcropping defended by the Austrians in the Dolomites, wave after wave of Italians were sent into machine-gun fire and “more than 6000 Italians had died on Col di Lana for precisely nothing.” After one of the endless offensives on the Isonzo, Thompson writes of Cadorna: “As for his actual gains on the Carso, they amounted to several villages and a couple kilometers of limestone, won at a cost of 80,000 casualties.” In another nameless struggle: “Five regiments were launched against the lone Habsburg battalion on Hill 383. Outnumbered by 15 to 1, the Austrians still inflicted 50% casualties on the attackers before succumbing.” All of this bloodshed was obviously mind and soul-numbing, not only to the millions of soldiers who were called up, but also for the entire nation, most of whom did not want or care about this war and did not even know why it was being fought.

After the war, Italian politicians once again played disgraceful diplomacy to the abhorrence of allies and enemies alike. Prime Minister Orlando and Foreign Minister Sonnino made absurd claims to places like Rijeka, the Dalmatian coast, Albania, and even Turkey, in order to justify their sacrifice, apparently forgetting that every other country “sacrificed” at least as much, and that Italy’s position on the “winning” side of the war still did not exactly give it the moral high ground. As Thompson writes: “Orlando’s and Sonnino’s zero-sum strategy in Paris dealt a fatal wound to Italy’s liberal system, already battered by the serial assaults of wartime. By stoking the appetite for unattainable demands, they encouraged Italians to despise their victory unless it led to the annexation of a small port on the other side of the Adriatic, with no historic connection to the motherland. Fiume [Rijeka in Croatian] became the first neuralgic point created by the Paris conference. Like the Sudetenland for Hitler’s Germany and Transylvania for Hungary, it was a symbol of burning injustice. A sense of jeopardized identity and wounded pride fused with a toponym to produce an explosive compound.”

D’Annunzio’s thirst for violence and aggressive nationalism was not quenched at the end of the war, and he laid the blueprint for the next several decades of fascist dictators by seizing the port of Rijeka with a small militia and declaring it an independent Italian Regency. After he declared war on Italy itself the Italian navy placed a well-aimed shell in D’Annunzio’s palace, which led to the poet’s quick surrender and flight from the city. Furthermore, the combination of a destructive war and the economic hardships it imposed laid the foundation for future political upheaval. “This enduring sense of bitterness, betrayal, and loss was an essential ingredient in the rise of Mussolini and his Blackshirts.” Thompson further comments: “For many veterans, Mussolini’s myth gave a positive meaning to terrible experience. This is the story of how the Italians began to lose the peace when their laurels were still green.”

An outside observer such as Hemingway, barely 19 years old and on the front for only one month, was able to see the war as “the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery.” Somewhat incredibly, from my experience and what I’ve read, the general opinion about the First World War in Italy is either of forgetfulness or buying into the heroic myth-making of the Fascist regime that wrote the history books in Italy for over a generation. Even if that regime is mostly discredited now (pictures of Il Duce still adorn the mantelpieces of at least a few rustic houses around the peninsula–I have even seen it with my own eyes twice!), the history involved before and during the world wars is too tragic to be accepted. The heroism of the Alpini, rugged mountain soldiers, lingers in the national consciousness more than anything else. Thompson comments that, for all the destruction, World War One was Italy’s “first true collective national experience”, one whose exorbitant cost only led its victims to embrace it even further. It may be that every symbolic “birth of a nation” always only truly comes about through a horrific spasm of violence.

I think this is where the history of one front of one particular war becomes something more universal in the human experience. War is the worst thing humans do. Based on our biological and social development, it is also one of the most complex and psychologically conflicted. The lessons of history always point to the folly of war, but that has rarely stopped opportunistic politicians and greedy businessmen from precipitating the next one, even against the wishes of the majority. In Italy, as Thompson meditates: “The Risorgimento [the national unification movement led by Garibaldi and Mazzini] was libertarian, patriotic, democratic, enlightened, and still unfinished, forever wrestling with its antithetical twin: authoritarian, manipulative, nationalistic, conspiratorial, and aggressive. From 1915-1944, the anti-Risorgimento had the upper hand. Perhaps the two still contend for mastery of Italy’s dark heart.” I would venture to say that in all countries at all times, these two antithetical notions always vie for control of political power, using emotional calls to arms, for the purpose of either the enlightened betterment of all, or the greedy enrichment of a few. We must always heed these two irreconcilable ideas, and always come out on the side that seeks to end whatever war we are in, and oppose the next war.


Crazy Horse and the Legacy of the American Indian Genocide

Recent news articles about coal pollution in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, and protests against new pipelines in North Dakota by the Standing Rock Sioux caught my eye. I’m an ardent environmentalist, but I’ve never been to and know little about the Mountain West area of the United States. The names of this particular river and Indian tribe jumped out at me, however, because I had just been reading about the 1876 Lakota Sioux War and its famous Battle of Little Bighorn, which took place along a stream parallel to the larger Powder River where much of the theatre of war was centered. I thought about how a minor link between past and present symbolized the entire history of the American Indians’ relationship with the United States.

Coal mine in the Powder River Basin

Coal mine in the Powder River Basin

I have always been interested in the story of the American Indians. When I was in the first grade in elementary school, we spent one week preparing a project on American Indians; everyday I had to fight with one other equally keen classmate over who got first rights to the ‘I’ volume of the class encyclopedia set. There was a long article on Indians in this volume with many great pictures and maps showing the locations of all the tribes, and their inexorable migration westward. A couple years later, in 1992, “The Last of the Mohicans” was the first R-rated film I saw in the cinema; I have seen it a couple dozen times since and it remains one of my all-time favorite films. There has always been something powerful in my consciousness, even before I understood it, that the country in which I was born and raised was once populated with a totally different group of people who were gone now–mostly gone, anyway. For a big, year-long historical research project in 7th grade in middle school, I chose the Trail of Tears–the forced death march of the Cherokee tribe from Georgia to Oklahoma to allow for gold-mining on their land. Long before I was politically aware, the innate feeling of tragic injustice moved me, and has continued to inform my historical and political readings to the present day.

My first year of college I took a class on early American history, during which I learned much more about the Pequot War and King Philip’s War. These two wars, beginning in 1634 and 1675 respectively, pitted for the first time New England colonists against local Indian tribes. They were brutal and both sides engaged in what would now be called ‘war crimes’, but by a narrow margin the Pequot and Wampanoag tribes were defeated, dispossessed of their land, enslaved, and driven into extinction (in a case of damnatio memoriae it was even forbidden to mention the name Pequot after the first war). The continual westward push of the European immigrants from the eastern seaboard gave rise to the same theme recurring again and again: frontiers with the Europeans and Indians were established, usually with an official peace treaty between the parties; the growing European population fueled the need for land; encroachment on Indian lands by Europeans started new conflict; Indians were defeated by Europeans, often with the help of rival Indian tribes, and often with extreme cruelty and duplicity. This pattern played out hundreds of times in the 280 years or so from the first English colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts to the “official” closing of the western frontier in 1890 (if we extend this history back to Columbus’ enslavement of the Arawak Indians on his first voyage in 1492 then it becomes almost exactly 400 years; in this essay I will focus only on the American Indians of the United States and not the entire American continent, though the history follows a similar pattern everywhere).

The contours of this long history are only ever taught in American history classes as a broad and tame overview, eliding most of the relevant details, and thus not providing scope for the scale of the tragedy of the American Indians’ plight. Only through independent reading and study, Howard Zinn’s unconventional history book The People’s History of the United States or Dee Brown’s engrossing Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee to name two famous examples, can one come to learn the heartbreaking tale of the American Indian.

Last Fight of the Fierce and Feathered

The last major war in these centuries of conflict between European Americans and American Indians was the 1876 Lakota Sioux campaign, called the Great Sioux War. This is one of the most famous events of all the Indian wars due to the abundance of contemporary sources (though no one bothered to interview or report anything from the Indian perspective until decades later, long after hostilities between Indians and white men were a thing of the past), as well as the well-known protagonists on each side. This war featured the most famous Indian fighter in American history, George Armstrong Custer, and two of the most famous Indian warriors of all time, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

Custer was one of those 19th century American originals who made his name by fighting, first in the Civil War and then against the plains Indians. His total defeat by the Indians at Little Bighorn (known as the Battle of the Greasy Grass to the Sioux) is still the worst loss in American military history in which an entire unit was destroyed in such a short time. The 210 cavalry troops in Custer’s personal detachment of the 7th Cavalry were killed to the last man against a type of foe (Indians) who had never won a war against American forces in over 200 years of near continual, if low-level, conflict. This battle is described in a fascinating, thorough, and even-handed way in Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2010 The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which I would highly recommend (as well as his other books In The Heart of the Sea and Why Read Moby-Dick?).



Crazy Horse was a warrior leader of the Oglala Sioux tribe, one of five confederated groups that made up the Lakota, or western plains Sioux Indians. Sitting Bull was a chief and holy man of the Hunkpapa, another one of the five tribes. Both of these men shared the characteristics of noble defenders of their people against an unprincipled and perfidious enemy. Crazy Horse, considered strange and incomprehensible even to his own people, was never defeated in battle in hundreds of engagements against the U.S. cavalry and rival tribes. Despite this, even he had to surrender to the U.S. government in order to save his people from starving. In the end he was stabbed in the back by one of these people, and with his death the spirit of resistance of the Indians died. He was never photographed and his final resting place is still secret. One of the best biographies I have read is Mari Sandoz’s Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, which tells his story entirely from the Indian perspective with a compassionate and poetic touch. There has been an ongoing project in the Black Hills for the last 70 years to carve a sculpture of this great warrior, which will be the largest sculpture in the world when completed. It was originally blessed by one of the leaders of the tribe, but most Indians today feel the monument is a desecration of a sacred mountain in the hills they consider their rightful home.

The original cause of the Great Sioux War was that Custer led a large cavalry march into the Black Hills to cut open a path, which violated terms of the peace treaty between the Sioux and the U.S. government which stated that the Black Hills were property of the Sioux and would never be entered by white men. This path became frequented by gold diggers who had discovered a rich source of mineral wealth. As happened again and again, when Indian land was found to be valuable, treaties were summarily ripped up and war of conquest, displacement, and destruction was visited upon the Indians, who never understood why the white man’s word was not his bond. Offers of millions of dollars to buy the Black Hills were rejected over and over by the Sioux tribes, which led to the government taking the land by force. Today, moral resistance against the theft continues since no Indian has ever taken the money offered by the government for the Black Hills (now sitting in a trust worth $1.3 billion), which have since been extensively mined for over 130 years with the total gold and metal extraction unknown, but probably coming to at least hundreds of billions of dollars. As recently as 2015 Congress passed a defense bill authorizing Native lands in Arizona to be sold without permission to foreign companies for copper mining. To recap, the U.S. government and many private companies have made an enormous amount of money from a small piece of land that was stolen from Indians, who never took any money in return and today survive on unwanted land that they are not allowed to own in abject poverty.

The Economic and Environmental Effects of the Indian Genocide

I am fully aware that genocide is a strong word, the strongest one used by historians in fact. Genocide is the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation. I am also quite familiar with the entire centuries-long history of Indian wars and the many individual tragic episodes that comprise it, and I have no misgivings about using the word genocide. Starting from the Pequot War and King Philip’s War to the Trail of Tears to the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, 1868 Washita Massacre (one of Custer’s proudest “victories”), and the final, painful Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, the classification of genocide is appropriate. Look up the harrowing details and I’m sure you will agree.

Estimating historical population figures is always tricky, but the typical average estimate for Indian population in the Americas in 1492 (the watershed year) is around 50 million, with high estimates of 100 million; up to 20 million or so has been estimated for the population of the area of the present-day United States. For comparison’s sake, the likely population of Europe in 1492 was probably around 60 million (and for even further comparison, the Roman Empire at its height in the second century CE was around 50 million). This goes to show the general truth that population figures have held steady or grown very slowly for most of human civilization, with the explosion to nearly 8 billion humans building up only for the last two centuries. The current American Indian population in the United States today, on the other hand, is less than 3 million. This number, which has actually grown rapidly in the last couple decades after staying very low for most of the 20th century, shows how there is just a fraction left of the people that used to inhabit the entire continent, while the total non-Indian population of the United States itself has exploded from 0 to 320 million since the 1600s (it goes without saying that disease played the largest part in decimating the Indians, but for those survivors it was an endless campaign of total destruction waged by the white men that drove the Indians nearly to extinction; it is always worth revisiting Jared Diamond’s outstanding Guns, Germs, and Steel demonstrating how Europeans came to wield such power over the rest of the world’s inhabitants).

The surviving Indian tribes remain dispersed almost completely in arid, resource-less lands of the American West, land unwanted by any white man for good reasons. Not only that, the arrangements by which they were herded onto reservations and which govern Indian relations today state that it is illegal for the Indians to actually own their own land, which makes them the only people in the country who are denied property rights, in a land which was all stolen from them in the first place. The irony is stunning and tragic. The biggest issue that raises awareness of the Indians’ plight today is not land or even history, however, but sports teams and school mascots. Most Indians today are not very concerned or offended by the Washington football team using the name Redskins, or by the hundreds of high schools and colleges using Indian names and mascots. They are too busy living in squalor, in third-world conditions in the richest country on Earth, and with little hope to even own their own property or improve their situation.

General Philip Sheridan ordered his soldiers to exterminate the American buffalo, which he thought would kill off the resisting plains Indians

General Philip Sheridan ordered his soldiers to exterminate the American buffalo, which he thought would kill off the resisting plains Indians

Like all indigenous peoples of the world, especially those of the western hemisphere, American Indians are the best and wisest advocates for environmental protections and the most dedicated fighters against exploitation of natural resources. According to Noam Chomsky, indigenous peoples of the world are the only hope for human survival. From the First Nations of Canada to the Zapotecs in Oaxaca and Mayans in Chiapas to the recently murdered rights activist Berta Cáceres in Honduras to the Amazonian tribes in Brazil and the Guaraní of Bolivia, indigenous peoples are leading the protests against deforestation, new pipelines, new dams, and other wanton destruction that is part of an exploitative capitalist system that does not account for environmental or human costs. As I have already mentioned, the Black Hills sacred to the Sioux are now deforested for timber and dotted with thousands of mines that blight the landscape. The Powder River basin of Montana and Wyoming, scene of the Great Sioux War, now produces 40% of the United States’ coal in super-intensive mining that renders the land into a real-world version of Mordor. The millions of American bison that once roamed the plains were massacred by the white man until there were only a few hundred left, all so that the plains Indians could not survive by their traditional nomadic hunting lifestyle. In 2016, members of the small remaining Standing Rock Sioux tribe are still protesting against new pipelines of dirty tar sands oil and a fracking-derived natural gas pipeline that would cross their land without their permission (or the land they inhabit but cannot own, which is considered public land by the government). If Crazy Horse were alive today he would be one of the leaders demanding political and property rights and environmental protections for his people. The current situation is the result of hundreds of years of principled American Indian resistance to genocide. Perhaps it is time for the rest of us to heed the wisdom and courage of the American Indians, and all indigenous people, and to treat animals as brothers and the land as if it is sacred, and not just an endless resource to be consumed and destroyed.


On Plato, Donald Trump, and the Ship of State

(Originally published at Wrath-Bearing Tree)

Plato’s most famous work and the foundational text of political philosophy is the Republic. Written in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and other real-life Athenians, the book opens with a discussion about the nature of justice and then proceeds into Plato’s ideas about what an ideal state and its leader would look like. I will argue how these ideas are still relevant nowadays, especially regarding the disturbing state of American politics in which the American people are considering electing for the first time an openly authoritarian leader who is blatantly unqualified for the job.

Plato, an aristocrat, held a deep antipathy for democracy; he had lived through the defeat of Athens at the hand of Sparta as well as the condemnation of his mentor, Socrates. He blamed democracy for these twin catastrophes. His own ideal state would actually bear strong resemblance to Sparta–a totalitarian state in which a small elite trained for success in battle, the majority were disenfranchised slaves who did all the labor, and all cultural activities were forbidden. Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy summarized Plato’s Republic as follows:

“When we ask: what will Plato’s Republic achieve? The answer is rather humdrum. It will achieve success in wars against roughly equal populations, and it will secure a livelihood for a certain small number of people. It will almost certainly produce no art or science, because of its rigidity; in this respect, as in others, it will be like Sparta. In spite of all the fine talk, skill in war and enough to eat is all that will be achieved. Plato had lived through famine and defeat in Athens; perhaps, subconsciously, he thought the avoidance of these evils the best that statesmanship could accomplish.”

Russell goes on in his criticism, answering the question of how and why Plato could have achieved such greatness despite having, frankly, mostly terrible ideas:

“Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.”

Plato’s Non-Ideal Republic in Practice

Indeed, the millennia of admiration for Plato’s Republic came to a sudden end when Russell’s History and Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies were published in the same year–1945. No coincidence that both were written during the Second World War at the height of the destruction wrought by demented dictators and dangerous ideas. Popper’s was perhaps the first, and still most important work, that separates Plato from the humanistic and democratic ideas of Socrates, and shows rather that Plato’s ideal state was a totalitarian one. The overriding theme of the book, which follows the thread of totalitarianism from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Marx, is how all these philosophers relied on historicism, a false theory in which history unfolds according the universal laws, to enable dangerous ideas to follow. He accused all of these thinkers of being partially culpable in leading Europe towards the crisis of leadership and war contemporaneous with the book’s publishing. Popper argues instead for a strong defense of the open society, which protects liberal values and institutes reforms without violence. One relevant issue Popper also discusses is the Paradox of Intolerance, which says that for an Open Society to flourish, we must not be tolerant of intolerance (which include the type of hate speech, bigotry, and violent rhetoric that is becoming normalized in Donald Trump’s Republican Party).

The most famous parable from the Republic is that of The Cave, whose premise about Plato’s theory of ideas most undergraduates would be familiar. Much more useful, in my opinion, however, is the parable of the Ship of State. Imagine the state as a ship, whose captain is a skilled stargazing navigator. The citizens are sailors, who may have many various skills but are not qualified to pilot the ship, especially through rough weather. The sailors mock the captain and try to replace him, but ultimately he is the only one with the ability to lead them. In Plato’s view, the captain in a state should be a philosopher-king, wise and trained at birth for his position as total ruler. One sees that democracy and Plato do not mix well–for him, the people were a mob who could not rule themselves.

Let’s bring these analogies into present day America.

As far as I can tell, America is the longest running large democracy in history, though a number of smaller polities, such as Iceland or the old Iroquois Confederation, to name two, are certainly older. For a huge and diverse nation of over 300 million people that has the world’s largest economy and strongest military, the fact that it has survived 240 years and a bloody civil war without ever deviating from a democratic and peaceful transition of power is quite amazing. Unprecedented actually. It was taken for granted when the Founding Fathers drew up the Constitution that Athenian-style democracy could only ever end in manipulation of the mob, or demos, by a demagogue or tyrant. They drew up a system of checks and balances between branches of government in which no person could amass enough power to take over the government, and through which change would necessarily be slow and conservative. This has often frustrated the ability to pass needed reforms, but has also the greater benefit of preserving the system peacefully.

Past American Presidents

Never in American history, discounting the obvious case of the Civil War, has the original political system drawn up in the Constitution come under threat of being radically altered. Likewise, there has never been a single person in American history who has had the power, or even sought the power, to completely control government in anything even resembling a dictatorship. Out of all the 44 presidents (Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms and is counted twice), historians typically agree on Andrew Johnson as the worst. It was certainly Abraham Lincoln’s biggest mistake to name him his Vice President for short-sighted and unnecessary electoral reasons before his reelection, and Johnson’s horrible term had awful ramifications for the next century regarding the reconstruction of the South. Even so, it is hard to find any American president who was unqualified to hold the office, in the traditional sense of having the ability and experience to operate an executive organization with delegated tasks and many moving parts. This has nothing to do with ideology, or even effectiveness, but of basic qualifications for the job before taking office. Several highly successful generals had either mostly good, mixed, or awful administrations (Eisenhower, Jackson, and Grant, for example), but their qualifications were never questioned despite their success or lack thereof. Herbert Hoover is generally considered an awful president mostly due to the Great Depression beginning on his watch, but he was highly successful in his private career and as the head of the U.S. Food Administration during WWI and Secretary of Commerce under two presidents before being elected, and was thus very qualified. Even George W. Bush, whom historians will most likely rank closer to Andrew Johnson than Franklin Roosevelt, governed the second largest state before becoming president. Most presidents have been highly educated and experienced men (obviously all men to date) with military backgrounds and terms as senators, congressmen, or governors. Men who understood something about the world and also how government works at various levels. The most successful presidents have also had temperaments suited for the rigorous stressfulness of this unique position as well as the ability to listen to advisors and learn from mistakes. To have a combination of many of these rare skills is what is wanted in a president, as well as a certain degree of other abstract qualities like intellectual curiosity, integrity, and empathy.

The Ideal Leader in a Democracy

Basically, I would argue that we want the same thing today as Plato wanted, even if we have different ways of going about it. Even if they will not be philosopher-kings, our leaders should be the best among us, and chosen by an informed electorate. They should be highly skilled at steering the large and unwieldy ship of state even in the rough waters of domestic and international politics. Plato, a member of the hereditary aristocracy and an anti-democrat, thought that these leaders should be bred from birth for the role, with the rest of the people having no say in the matter. There is another meaning of aristocracy, which is merely “rule by the best”, not involving genetics or inheritance but pure merit through earned experience, training, and natural character, and selected for by the majority of citizens. In our democracy, even with the two major political parties nominating candidates for the office of president, there has long been a de facto sorting out of the best qualified candidates. Once again, this has nothing to do with ideology but of basic minimum ability to function in a very complex role. Despite differences in ideas by the parties and the electorate, there has always been a tacit understanding that the winner will uphold the duties of his office and continue to serve in the government for the people.

The Disqualification of Donald Trump

Thus, we have never before in American history been in the position we are currently in–namely, to have a major party candidate for president who is clearly and without any doubt unqualified and unsuited for the office that he seeks. The Republican Party, once a bastion of principled conservatism, respect for law, and personal responsibility, has become so radical and reactionary over the last three decades or so that it has nominated a person who would certainly be the most disastrous, irresponsible, and unqualified president in history, and the closest we have yet come to a dictator, however petty. Trump’s open disregard for the rule of law, free press, and clear lack of basic knowledge of the world and the government he would operate is a disqualification for president. His other temperamental flaws, his proudly open bigotry (the likes of which has not been seen in a major candidate since there was legal slavery), his shocking, world historical level of narcissism and mendacity (unprecedented even for a would-be politician), and other shallow but toxic policy ideas are almost beside the point–any one of these attributes should easily have disqualified Trump from coming anywhere near being an realistic candidate for president, but the ultimate fact that he has none of the necessary tools to meet the minimum standards for piloting the ship of state is the single most important fact. He is not trained or experienced in anything like running the executive branch of the richest and strongest military power on Earth. He has shown no ability to succeed in anything other than making his own name universally known, however he goes about that. He is not a stargazer who can pilot America through bad storms, nor is he someone who should have instant control over soldiers’ lives and nuclear weapons.

The Republican Party, for the first time in American history, has failed in the basic task of nominating a human who is at a basic level of qualification for the office of president. There is no need to get any more into the details of how and why this happened--this article gives a brief summary of how the Republican Party began moving rightward three decades ago and cynically cultivating deep distrust of government itself for its own electoral gain, and this is the result. The most important thing is that Trump be defeated at all costs, and that a strong warning is cried out that never again will We the American people tolerate such a denigration of our hallowed tradition for maintaining a functioning democracy, whatever differences of policy and ideology. I disagree with Plato’s sentiment that democracy is a bad thing. It is not a perfect system; it is merely less bad than every other possible system. Its strength, and also its only flaw, is that it ultimately depends on an electorate that votes in the best interests of the peaceful and prosperous survival of the state, and not on a single tyrant who manipulates the mob with promises to solve all problems on his own. Let’s hope that we can continue for at least another 240 years without such a threat and an affront to our great country.

E.O. Wilson on Biology as Politics, Culture, and Human Nature

where-do-we-come-from-what-are-weOne of the most illustrious living scientists, E.O. Wilson, is still active and writing great books well into his ninth decade. In this article I will review two of his most recent works, The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) and The Meaning of Human Existence (2014).

Wilson, a biologist considered to be the world’s foremost expert on ants and sociobiology, is a gifted writer who explains difficult concepts for non-expert readers. My interests have always lain mostly within the humanities–history, literature, and philosophy above all–but reading these two books has opened my eyes in a couple ways. Firstly, that biology strongly determines many of the things often considered as separate and non-overlapping fields of study–history, politics, and the arts, for example. Secondly, that the fields of science and the humanities really would be best served by combining their forces and engaging in joint dialogue and research. I will attempt to explain these in greater detail.

The Social Conquest of Earth is the story of how the most successful and dominant organisms in Earth’s history are the ones that developed eusociality–namely, the social insects of termites, bees, wasps, and especially ants on one hand, and human beings on the other. Eusociality is the term for the systematic cooperation between a large number of organisms in a given species for the benefit of the group over the benefit of individuals. Out of hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary history and the rise and fall of as many different species, this trait of social cooperation has only arisen 20 times as far as experts can tell (mostly species of the aforementioned insects, along with two varieties of shrimp, and two species of naked mole rats that are the only other eusocial mammals besides humans). Wilson spends the rest of the book explaining why it was so rare, why human beings in particular are so unique, and how this relates to the rest of the world’s history.

“The origin of eusociality has been rare in the history of life because group selection must be exceptionally powerful to relax the grip of individual selection. Only then can it modify the conservative effect of individual selection and introduce highly cooperative behavior into the physiology and behavior of the group members.” This is the key point of why social cooperation is so rare, leading to what Wilson calls the iron rule of genetic social evolution: “It is that selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.” This is true for all the relevant species, but especially for humans as we will see.

E.O. Wilson (1929- )

E.O. Wilson (1929- )

So how did such a trait evolve in the first place? Wilson lists three reasons: “One solid principle drawn from this analysis of the hymenopterans [the ants], and other insects as well, is that all of the species that have attained eusociality, as I have stressed, live in fortified nest sites. A second principle, less well established but probably nonetheless universal, is that the protection is against enemies, namely predators, parasites, and competitors. A final principle is that, all other things being equal, even a little society does better than a solitary individual belonging to closely related species both in longevity and in extracting resources from the area around a fixed nest of any kind.”

A significant part of the book deals with detailed descriptions of ant (and termite and bee) colonies and how they developed socially, which is Wilson’s particular specialty (at one point he mentions nonchalantly how he discovered and named 442 new species of ant). More interesting is how he compares and contrasts these social insects with humans, and describes the evolutionary process by which humans became a uniquely transcendent species. (For another interesting take on what happens when the planet’s two most successful species go head to head, see the classic short story “Leiningen Versus the Ants”, which I remember reading in high school English class).

Wilson describes the development of Homo sapiens as a maze, ultimately random, with each subsequent mutation bringing us closer to our modern form and capabilities. The first necessary adaptation was existence on the land so that fire could be harnessed (this is why highly intelligent dolphins and whales will never develop civilizations). The second necessary adaptation was large body size which allowed for bigger brains and advanced reasoning and culture (this excludes all eusocial insects). The third necessary adaption was the use of grasping hands with soft spatulate fingers that could hold and manipulate objects (this eliminates all large land animals besides the apes). The next necessary step was a dietary shift to a large amount of meat, a much more efficient source of protein that led to both larger brains and more social communities (this also excluded all other apes who are either vegetarian or, like chimpanzees, get only a small fraction of their calories from meat [additional note: I have often written of my vegetarianism and how good it is for people, animals, and the environment; I do not see any disconnect, however, between our ancestors’ adoption of meat into their diet for extra caloric and social development in a very limited world, and our current need to cut down grossly or eliminate meat consumption from our diets for the good of ourselves and life on our planet]). “About a million years ago the controlled use of fire followed, a unique homonid achievement.” This was likely because early human ancestors found cooked meat from animals burned in forest fires, and began to bring the fire with them. “Cooking became a universal human trait. With the sharing of cooked meals came a universal means of social bonding…along with fireside campsites came division of labor.” This maze seems very logical and easy to trace in hindsight, and from here it is relatively easy to trace the rest of human social development.

Wilson comes to some similar conclusions as another biologist Yuval Noah Harari, whose Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind I reviewed here. For instance, he says “The origin of modern humanity was a stroke of luck–good for our species for a while, bad for most of the rest of life forever.” He spends a lot of time describing how human culture developed to favor group cooperation over individual interests, and how this has affected our history, culture, and even psychology. “An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honor, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side.” In fact, he comments at length on the tribal instincts of our species which lead to the worst part of our nature, yet has been ingrained in our cultural development over thousands of generations of evolution. “The elementary drive to form and take deep pleasure from in-group membership easily translates at a higher level into tribalism. People are prone to ethnocentrism. It is an uncomfortable fact that even when given a guilt-free choice, individuals prefer the company of others of the same race, nation, clan, and religion…Once a group has been split off and sufficiently dehumanized, any brutality can be justified, at any level, and at any size of the victimized group up to and including race and nation.” What a history of human war and social conflict this sociobiological fact entails.

books0415woodardA portion of the book is spent on laying out the case for the theory of group selection versus the theory of kin selection, which had been the most popular one for four decades. The latter, discussed by Charles Darwin, formally theorized in 1964 by W.D. Hamilton, and popularized by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 The Selfish Gene, states that kinship is the dominant criteria for genetic reproduction. Wilson references a new mathematical model and a variety of examples to show why group selection is actually the more likely reality. Altruism, for example, never fit well in the kin selection model, but it is the basis for Wilson’s theory. Dawkins, a renowned polemicist, did not take lightly to the dismissal of his preferred theory, and it led to quite the biological war of words in the press (here is a summary). I am not equipped to weigh in on what is still a controversial issue in evolutionary biology, but Wilson makes his case very convincingly.

Another fascinating aspect of the book that warrants mentioning is its discussion of how human cultural development differs from other animals. Somewhat surprisingly, Wilson says that we did not invent culture. Our common ancestor with chimpanzees did millions of years ago. “Most researchers agree that the concept of culture should be applied to animals and humans alike, in order to stress its continuity from one to the other and notwithstanding the immensely greater complexity of human behavior.” Accordingly, he mentions how dolphins and whales have culture, shown by their imitative social interactions. He reminds us again, though, why such intelligent creatures did not progress as far as humans in social evolution: “Unlike primates, they have no nests or campsites. They have flippers for forelimbs. And in their watery realm, controlled fire is forever denied.” Culture is especially dependent on long-term memory, a trait which humans possess far above all other animals. Our enlarged brains have made us into storytellers and planners, able to imagine past and future scenarios, invent fictions (a point also highlighted in Harari’s book Sapiens), and delay immediate desires in favor of delayed pleasures.

The Social Conquest of Earth explores a number of other engaging topics, but in the name of brevity I will conclude my synopsis here (in this New York Times “The Stone” article, Wilson also gives a nice summary of his ideas). I think one of the most important points of the book is the connection between biological development and what we usually think of as humanistic studies. I, for one, will be rethinking much of what I thought I knew about political and ethical philosophy. If we simply trust facts coming from scientific research, we will not need to construct theoretical hypotheses about how human societies developed and invented laws–those of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Rousseau, for example. Likewise with thorny questions of morality–if we consider that we are social animals who evolved successfully to work together, but that we still maintain the older individualistic impulses that go against the group, it helps to understand why humans behave the way the do. Perhaps Nietzsche was right, but not in the way he intended. We need not use the terms good and evil to characterize human actions–we can assess them as altruistic or selfish. Wilson comments: “Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and the better angels of our nature.”

9780871401007_custom-daa875ec0938392ef121288e44a4ce0719f16eef-s400-c85The Meaning of Human Existence is a slimmer volume with a more multidisciplinary approach, but no less ambitious than its predecessor as the title implies. In it, Wilson rehashes some of the same information as before, such as another extended case for group selection theory over kin selection (prompted no doubt by the controversy it stirred up two years earlier). For the most part, though, Wilson attempts to give a brief but comprehensive version of human history and development, and how we can advance as a species by uniting scientific and humanistic studies, and overall being better stewards of our immense, godlike power over the planet.

Here are some interesting quotes in my opinion that give some flavor of what the book is about:

“The function of anthropocentricity—fascination about ourselves—is the sharpening of social intelligence, a skill in which human beings are the geniuses among all Earth’s species. It arose dramatically in concert with the evolution of the cerebral cortex during the origin of Homo sapiens from the African australopith prehumans. Gossip, celebrity worship, biographies, novels, war stories, and sports are the stuff of modern culture because a state of intense, even obsessive concentration on others has always enhanced survival of individuals and groups. We are devoted to stories because that is how the mind works—a never-ending wandering through past scenarios and through alternative scenarios of the future.”

“What we call human nature is the whole of our emotions and the preparedness in learning over which those emotions preside. Some writers have tried to deconstruct human nature into nonexistence. But it is real, tangible, and a process that exists in the structures of the brain. Decades of research have discovered that human nature is not the genes that prescribe the emotions and learning preparedness. It is not the cultural universals, which are its ultimate product. Human nature is the ensemble of hereditary regularities in mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction as opposed to others and thus connect genes to culture in the brain of every person.”

“It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things.”

Both books are highly recommended reading for anyone interested in life’s big questions, which should be everyone. In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson opened with a discussion of Paul Gauguin’s masterpiece, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”, and what led the painter to create such a work. Gauguin lived an interesting life, giving up everything in a quest for truth and beauty (as portrayed in William Somerset Maugham’s great roman à clef, The Moon and Sixpence). The painting reveals the questions which are still central to religion, philosophy, and science; these questions may perhaps never be solved, but Wilson overall gives as good a try as anyone at some likely answers. He ends on a positive, if quixotic, note that if humanity can harness its power for good, we can conquer our gods and demons: “So, now I will confess my own blind faith. Earth, by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least the strong beginnings of one. We will do a lot more damage to ourselves and the rest of life along the way, but out of an ethic of simple decency to one another, the unrelenting application of reason, and acceptance of what we truly are, our dreams will finally come home to stay.”

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