The fictional and the real: WWI and narrative

Recently, I've listened to Dan Carlin's fine (if a bit overlong) podcast series on the Great War, Blueprint for Armageddon (in six parts, and currently free on his site, Hardcore History.  Well worth your time), and read the book Carlin acknowledges as a significant source, Peter Hart's The Great War, a Combat History of the First World War, which I also recommend, with this caveat: the maps are terrible. You'll need something like the resource I used, Arthur Banks's A Military Atlas of the First World War to have some idea of what is going on.

Together, those sources gave me much better appreciation for the military challenges of winning the war on the Western Front, particularly from the Allied side. In essence: you couldn't. The French and British got better and better at attacking as the war progressed, learning how to use moving barrages, how to concentrate their forces, how do combined operations with aircraft and tanks. All that ever got them was a few miles and a lot of dead men. Even at their best and most organized, each offensive would reach its initial objectives and then, while they regrouped for the next round, the Germans would also reorganize and present another defensive line. Not a single one of these offensives achieved any larger objective.

And many of them were not at all well-organized.  Over and over, Hart tells how either the British or French would be hard-pressed, about to collapse, and desperately request their allies to launch an offensive to take some of the pressure off.  Even though even well-planned and well-resourced offensives failed, the commanders would scramble to comply, essentially slaughtering thousands of men to maintain a feeling of alliance. Nothing ever succeeded.

So that is why the whole four years feels like one endless static nightmare, except in the beginning, at the Battle of the Frontiers, and at the end, when moving armies meant that the casualties were way higher that they were even in brutal assaults on trenches. Carlin refuses to detail much of 1915, because every horrible battle was exactly like every other horrible battle, and no one yet had much of a clue how to manage things.

So no wonder that people with a sense of narrative, like Churchill and Lloyd-George, became what were called Easterners, trying to find some way they could attack without facing the iron wall of the German army in the West. The results were just as terrible: Gallipoli and Salonika (where, after getting all bent out of shape about Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality, the British blithely violated Greek neutrality in pursuit of their own goals). Even the successful Middle East campaigns, featuring the charismatic Lawrence of Arabia, were just sideshows that drew resources from the main fight. Not one of those operations were worth the effort.

You could tell bad commanders by the fact that they killed way more of their own troops, but there was no way to be a truly good commander. No genius could come up with some spectacular tactic. New weapons systems, like tanks, would work well at first and then break down. No propaganda could affect the enemy's will to resist.

None of us would ever come up with something like this as the basis of an SF or fantasy novel. There we like people who affect things, make things happen, and can anticipate the actions of the enemy. None of that on the Western Front. The best thing would have been for everyone involved to negotiate some kind of status quo ante treaty after the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914. After all, by the end of 1914, the French alone had already lost something like 300,000 dead, an unbelievable 27,000 on just one day, August 22.

Of course, everyone still believed there was a story to tell, one with some kind of narrative. It's startling to think how long they would have to wait for the end of the story.

Things I didn't know about history: rubberized canvas car tops

Technological change has been a constant since the beginning of the industrial revolution. But what was a difficult technical challenge and what wasn't is sometimes difficult to remember in retrospect.

For example, this Shorpy photograph shows a street in 1935:

 Even an airy open streetcar

The really step into the scene, go to the full size image on Shorpy.

Every car on the street, even that Packard limo in the lower right corner, has a rubberized canvas insert in the roof, pointed out by Dave, the brains behind Shorpy. It turns out that it wasn't until the 1935 model year that GM was able to design and build a giant (and expensive) stamping press that would create one-piece all-steel automobile roofs. Eventually those became standard. I had no idea.

That's why I'm so nervous about writing historical fiction. There are just so many details that are easy to get wrong--though this is a great detail to include.  But my favorite, Shorpy, remains an invaluable resource, both for the photos and the informative comments.  And the mordant Dave.

The nebulous "Midwest"

I grew in in Illinois, in suburban Chicago. I have relatives in Minnesota, Ohio, and Michigan. I am a Midwesterner, and will never be anything else. Acute ears here in Boston can instantly peg me to, not only the greater Midwest, but the Great Lakes area.

So I am surprised that there is debate about which states are actually in the Midwest. In this survey from 538, only 80% of respondents thought Illinois was in the Midwest. Who are these people, and why do they bother having opinions about anything?

To me, the Midwestern states are (West to East): Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, MIchigan, and Ohio.  No Southern states, please. No Missouri, no Kentucky (!),  One historical characteristic of Midwest states: they were settled from New England, and they were not slave states. In a sense, you could say that southern Illinois and Indiana are not in the Midwest, by this criterion, being more Southern inflected. It's basically the old Northwest Territory, plus Iowa ("around here, dear, we pronounce that Ohio").

The Old Northwest Territory

So they have townships, deep glacial soil and a lot of other glacial geography, nice folks who like casseroles (or "hot dishes"), and a scattering of French place names, which they grotesquely mispronounce.

Quick rule: if you could imagine anyone in town volunteering to serve in the Confederate Army, it is not the Midwest.  It is somewhere much meaner and more ornery. Maybe more fun, I won't argue about that. But not the Midwest.

And no Great Plains states. Great states, all, but completely different. Less water: not a lot of canoeing.  I'd say Midwest is corn and hogs instead of wheat and cattle, but Minnesota and Wisconsin wouldn't fit then. People from Minnesota are incredibly nice, so they want their friends in North and South Dakota to be in the Midwest. I've lived in Massachusetts long enough to say: screw that. Get your own region.

And, seriously, Wyoming, or Pennsylvania? Once words can mean anything, how do you communicate?

Perhaps with a gesture, I guess, which is not visible in this post.

Odd bits of Mound-Builder-related art

I am currently working on a story that involves archeological hoaxes and  the Mound Builder myth. One research book is Mound Builders of Ancient America, by SF's own Robert Silverberg.  He has written several pleasing historical works during his career, and this one is complete, well-researched, and well-written.

One thing that strikes me is the cover illustration. which is identified as "An American Battle Mound" from a book called Traditions of De-coo-dah, by William Pidgeon (1858), an imaginative reconstruction of some ancient battle.

Would probably work better with parapetsThe thing that strikes me about the picture, though, is the two guys in front. While there is a desperate battle going on, they've decided to have a friendly little chat.

So, what are you doing this weekend, anything?I guess the artist needed a still point in the foreground to point up the frenzied activity in back. Or maybe the whole thing was less of a deal than it might seem.

Mound Builder myth has some relation to the Book of Mormon, and there is an illustration in the standard edition of that book which struck me in high school, and which I just looked up. It involves one of those many prophets throughout both myth and history who piss people off. Real prophets always do, you know, so be careful of anyone who claims to be a prophet, either in life or in fiction, who does not stimulate rage and opposition in otherwise placid people.

Safety firstThe Nephite inhabitants of this town are trying to get Samuel the Lamanite to just shut up.

But you know what's interesting? Not only did the Nephites build a nice staircase up to their parapet, they made sure it had an OSHA-approved guard rail.

Enough poking fun.  I have to get back to work.

Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy

That's actually a listing of presidents following Nixon in a history lesson in 1975's post-apocalyptic teen sex comedy, A Boy and His Dog, based on the Harlan Ellison story (and featuring a talking telepathic dog that could be the reincarnation of Ellison himself). Probably not worth seeking out, though I enjoyed it at the time.

But it could be an account of the last couple of weeks of news.  My teenage son asked me if some spectacular new piece of information had surfaced about the assassination, thus justifying the enormous amount of coverage. I had to say that no, there hadn't been. It was a generation mourning itself.

I don't mean to be flip. It was, after all, a tragic and significant event. I just found the focus to be a bit relentless.

Still, a couple of interesting things did appear.

One was this recording of Erich Leinsdorf making the announcement of the assassination to a stunned Boston Symphony audience, and then launching into an impromptu performance of the funeral march from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony.

 This is my music. I still remember my parents buying me an LP of a Bernstein/NY Phil recording, with this cover:

Three heavyweights

I've owned a number of recordings since then, but I still remember the pleasure with which I listened to that one. In context, that funeral march is extremely moving, though that may seem odd for someone who grew up outside the context of European concert music. I wonder how many people still remember that particular performance at Symphony Hall?

The second is an eerie HD version of the Zapruder film, which Kottke says was made by someone named Antony Davison, though I see no other references to him online.

A friend who lived in the Soviet Union as a child in the 1960s once told me that there was a TV show there about the United States that played the Zapruder film repeatedly as its opening credits. This is probably the most intensively analyzed 26 seconds of film ever shot, and it still has the power to shock.

12 Years a Slave, and the Capitol building

Last night, my daughter Faith and I went to see the movie 12 Years a Slave. It is a movie specifically about the experience of slavery before the Civil War. Though at least one character makes a remark on how this will all have to change someday, no one mentions the President, any bill in Congress, or any news of any kind. There are no scenes that follow the lives of non-slave characters. The focus is on the day-to-day experience of slavery.

That's what makes the movie powerful and almost intolerable. There is no escape, no opportunity for vengeance, not even any sign the system could ever possibly change. And, in fact, it didn't, until invading armies destroyed it.

It is even realistic in that we see privileged slaves: household slaves, and slave mistresses who have learned to take advantage of their position. And we do see one slave mistress who was finally sold off by her previous master's daughter, and is now a field hand like the rest, because a position that is only granted by someone else can just as easily be taken away.

There is actually one small opening out to imply the larger political situation, in a really brief image. After the freeborn Solomon Northup is kidnapped into slavery and chained in a cell, the camera pans up and reveals that his location is Washington DC. We know this because we see the Capitol Building on its hill.

And even here, the movie shows its quality, and its daring, because it shows the Capitol as it looked in the 1840s, with its low copper dome, not the 1863 building we all know.  I can't find a screenshot from the film, but this shows the dome so you can see how low it was then:

The original Capitol, with a coffle of slaves

This is daring because the image lasts only a second or two, and most people will not instantly recognize that version of the building. Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997), a movie about slaves and slave trading set in 1839 that focused mostly on the white characters,  lacked that courage.  There is a scene with John Quincy Adams where what looks like the post-1863 Capitol looms behind him.

In fact, what it shows is the c1900 Rhode Island State House:

A great building by McKim, Mead and White, but not the U.S. CapitolWhen I saw the movie, though, I did not think we had moved to Providence. I saw it as the Capitol building.

Filmakers and writers setting scenes in the past are always torn between being true to the situation, attitudes, look, language, and relationships as they really were, and making sure that those are comprehensible and sympathetic to a modern audience. I think this movie takes at least one step toward accuracy and away from comfort. I'm sure people will point out inaccuracies, and places it could have gone even farther. That's inevitable. It goes incredibly far.

This makes a great pairing with last year's Lincoln, white people arguing about slavery, because it shows what they were arguing about. And I will say, as I said about Lincoln, that every American should see it.


Do second weddings count?

As you might  know, I'm a big fan of the BBC radio show In Our Time, which I get as a podcast and listen to while running. The most recent show, on the invention of radio, contained a discussion about how little credit Marconi ever gave to anyone else, among other personality flaws, and included this exchange:

Simon Schaffer: This is a man whose best man at his wedding was Mussolini.

Elizabeth Bruton (quickly, seeking to set the record straight): Second wedding.


Panoramas and viewsheds at Gettysburg

Here, (via The Dish) an interesting interactive article by Anne Kelly Knowles, from The Smithsonian, showing what commanders could and couldn't see during crucial points during the Battle of Gettysburg. It's really fun, and well worth a look.

We're used to seeing God's-eye-views of battlefield diagrams which show everything, and also know how things worked out, so we get a skewed sense of what it was like then.

The article shows panoramas, which lets you scan across a generated image of what the battlefield actually looked like from a commander's point of view. Of course, it is devoid of concealing smoke and mist, as well as time pressure, noise of detonations, and constant influx of frantic written and spoken messages.

In addition, you can examine viewsheds, which show the map with blind areas from the commander's point of view. You can see how at crucial points, Lee had no way to see significant parts of the Union force. Of course, he did not need to rely solely on his own eyesight: he got those aforementioned frantic messages.

Still, walking through the battle using this tool gives you a real sense of the blindness that was inherent to the technological level at which any of these battles were fought. You just couldn't see anything. How did the best commanders integrate all the information thay had into a simulation of what they concluded was out there? It's an interesting form of mental processing, and clearly only a few of them were really good at it.

It *is* Richard III

A couple of months ago, I wrote that they seemed to have found Richard III's body under a parking lot in Leicester.

Well, now it's official.  It's him. Odd to think that he was only 33 when he died.  Olivier played him at 48, McKellen at 55. Time to have him played by a younger actor--though who would have the heft?

This will give some impetus to the rerelease of Olivier's Technicolor drag-king fever dream Richard III, which I remember being fascinated by on late-night TV when I was in high school. "Hey, I actually like this," I remember thinking. "Maybe I am an intellectual after all."


Ancient geology and modern election results

Today I was delighted to read an account of the Driftless Area, and its effects on election results (HT: Kids Prefer Cheese).

The Driftless Area is a region, mostly in Wisconsin, but also covering parts of Minnesota and Iowa, that escaped glaciation during the last ice age (and thus lacks deposits of glacial drift, hence the name--it still snows a lot there). As a result, its topography is both hillier and more deeply dissected by river valleys than surrounding areas.

It also went for Obama significantly more than neighboring, equally rural areas did. While rural areas across the country (with another exception I'll mention below) went for Romney, these counties went blue. The demographics of the region don't seem to vary much from neighboring areas. What gives?

Maybe some ancient evil that was not extirpated by the busy glaciers...August Derleth could have explained it. And I looked--Sauk City, where he grew up, is right on the edge of the Driftless Area. Coincidence? I don't think so!

I was delighted, because I remember reading the only literary reference to the Driftless Area that I can remember: in #11 of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. books, The Invisibility Affair, by "Thomas Stratton" (a nom d'oncle of Buck Coulson and Gene DeWeese). The book involves an invisible dirigible, the Horicon marsh, and a car trunk full of margarine, among other things. I have cited the book's analysis of laws against selling colored margarine in dairy-producing areas as an example of regulations that claim to protect the public but actually protect some specific interest group, and no, I have never checked whether what it said was true, why do you ask? Ilya Kuryakin would never lie to me. The action takes place in that region of Wisconsin. Unfortunately I got rid of those books years ago, so I can't check whether it is still any good.  I loved those books as a kid.  And look how edumacated they made me!

Oh, the other geological influence on election results? The location of a Cretaceous sea determined where chalk would be deposited, and thus where a band of rich and well-drained soils would appear across the American South and be particularly suitable for large-scale cotton plantations worked by slaves, and thus where, to this day, large numbers of African Americans live, and vote Democrat, turning those counties blue.

Cretaceous seas and missing glaciers: anyone know of any other geological correlations to political alignments?

Has Richard III's body been found?

How did I miss the fact that Richard the Third's body might have been found under a parking lot in Leicester? (from The History Blog) You probably already know all about this. An excavation at the spot in a church where Richard was supposedly buried has uncovered a male skeleton with perimortem trauma to the back of the head and an arrowhead lodged in the back--a skeleton showing distinct signs of a back abnormality (probably scoliosis) that would have left one shoulder much lower than the other.

Still, it might not be him. The investigators are getting a cheek swab from a Canadian whose mother was the 16th great-grandniece of Richard's oldest sister, Anne of York (this man gets called a "descendant" of Richard III in some stories), for a look at his mitochondrial DNA for a possible match.

This is fun archeology-as-spectator-sport stuff. What other things am I missing out on?

Book report: In the Shadow of the Sword

As I mentioned in my post On buying books at full price, a few weeks ago, I acquired a copy of Tom Holland's In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, and was having fun with it.

It continued to be great fun, all the way through. I recommend it highly. But not casual fun, I would say, so be ready.

An earlier book of his, Persian Fire, for example, was a coherent, dramatic story, about the attempted Persian conquest of Greece, and the failure of that attempt. Shadow is, by contrast, the story of a gigantic historic turning point, one whose origins have been obscured, both deliberately and accidentally: the end of Persian and Roman/Hellenistic culture in the eastern Mediterranean and the emergence of the Islamic civilization that has dominated that region ever since. Be ready for a wide variety of Roman Emperors, Persian Shahs, rebellious Parthian noblemen, Jewish exegetes, and caliphs, most of whom have one reason or another for modifying history in support of their own legitimacy. Holland's ability to organize vast masses of contradictory and incomplete material and form it into a structure that is both fun to read and clear about what is known and what isn't is phenomenal.

This period, the fifth and sixth centuries, has become interestingly popular to write about lately.  Late Antiquity is hot. I'm not sure whether this says anything about our historical moment or not. In the early seventh century the Romans finally defeated their great opponent, the Persian Empire, only to have a third force burst out of the southern wastelands, annihilate the remnants of Persia completely, and come close to destroying the Roman Empire as well. Maybe Americans, having knocked out their own great opponent in the Soviet Union, ar looking around nervously for who might pop up unexpectedly to challenge them, and so become interested in another historical example. Or it might just be the result of the great amount of useful work in archeology, epigraphy, and a range of other disciplines that seems to be redrawing the intellectual map of this period.

Holland does use a similar structure to Persian Fire for this book, starting with a description of the crux situation, then going back to show how each of the players came to be in that decisive situation, and finally showing what the aftermath was. First he deals with one monotheistic bureaucratic empire, that of Persia, then he shows you the other monotheistic bureaucratic empire, the Roman (with its capital now in Constantinople, since the western part of the empire fell away in the fifth century), then he tells you something about Jewish intellectual developments. Then he shows you who those Arabs were, and how they came to challenge both those great powers.

And, all the way, he shows you how dicey, contradictory, and purely fictional the historical documents we have are. Relatively new temples and practices quickly develop a supposedly long pedigree. We should always be tentative in accepting our sources at face value.

Some of this is because the creators of a religion are not the ones who codify it. How much do you want an individual achieve? You want Jesus to both die for your sins and decide what to do with Gentiles who want to join the church? You want Mohammed to simultaneously bring a new revelation and give rules for managing the vast empire that spreads after his death? Transformative revelation and day-to-day life rules sit uncomfortably together, and the person who provides the first is seldom the one who codifies the latter. So someone comes along later, cleans up a few contradictory documents, grabs some useful practices from the conquered, retrospectively creates a tradition, and makes it all a neat package, useful for export. So it was with the new Islamic state religion. It turns out that there is little evidence of what the first centuries of Muslims actually believed, but plenty of things from later that claim to reflect what had been originally believed. There are a lot of interesting signs of where various early Islamic beliefs and practices came from, and it wasn't from Mohammed. No one seems to have issued a fatwa against Holland, however.

Holland takes a complex and difficult subject and untangles the strands so that you can examine each one individually before seeing how they all fit together. And impressive and intellectually satisfying accomplishment. Just be ready to do your work.

Another example of the poverty of historical explanation: Enigma

No matter what, we have to believe we know why things happened. Some people believe in vast impersonal historical imperatives, others in sinister conspiracies, yet others in divine providence. 

A couple of months ago, Greg Cochrane, in his interesting and crabby blog West Hunter, brought up an example of the poverty of historical explanation: for a couple of decades after the Second World War, historians wrote accounts of what had happened in that war, and why, without any knowledge of a significant influence on how events turned out, the breaking of the Enigma codes. But no one (as far as I know) said "actually, the defeat of the Germans, and the US victory at Midway, and a whole bunch of other things, seem unbelievably lucky. Is there something we don't know about them? Were there, maybe, some spies who have not yet come to light? Or some other explanation?"

I do remember a good friend saying, after the publication of Winterbotham's The Ultra Secret, the first big public explanation of the breaking of the codes, and the effect that had on the war: "No one understood anything about it!"

Now, maybe, we do. Though the Soviet victory in that war, which really decided things, still makes no sense at all to me. No code breaking for them, no secret weapons, no across-the-ocean safe haven pumping out bombers and cruisers, nothing but beatings, starvation, mass slaughter, burning villages...and victory. Utterly incomprehensible, and utterly fascinating.

A fresh dinner in ancient Rome

In an intriguing review of an upcoming book, Rome: an Empire's Story, by Greg Woolf, Adrian Goldsworthy (author of a number of books about Rome in my library) notes something interesting about Roman diet and daily life:

Woolf notes that chickens appeared in the Mediterranean world sometime in the middle of the last millennium BC. Quick to breed and relatively easy to maintain, they provided eggs and a source of conveniently small quantities of meat—an important attribute in a world without refrigeration.

It's this kind of observation about daily life that can really bring a past time to life. People made practical choices, based on what made the most sense given their circumstances. One chicken = one dinner. Bigger ruminants make a lot of meat, impossible to store without refrigeration. That's why the ancients largely saved them for sacrifice and mass consumption.

I also didn't know chickens had reached the Mediterranean that late.

I'm always a sucker for another book that might help me understand ancient Rome, so I think I will eventually end up with this one too.

Things we know that are wrong: morituri te salutamus

Many things intellectualoids  like me "know" are really detached pieces of information that just imply knowledge.  We read essays and reviews and pick up references to works that require a substantial investment of time and intellect to understand. How many of us who make reference to the life of man in a state of nature being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" have ever read Leviathan, or anything else by Hobbes?

I know I haven't, and am not likely to. It's just a little intellectual accessory I display to show what kind of person I like to think I am.

Unfortunately, aside from being ludicrously simplified, our intellectual accessories are often wrong.

For example, anyone trying to pretend to a knowledge of gladiators in the ancient world (again, like me) knows that gladiators always said  "Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutamus" (Hail, Caesar, we who are about to die salute you)  before going out on the sand.

Except they didn't.  This phrase is only attested to have been used once, at a naumachia, or naval combat, at Fucine Lake to celebrate the completion of a drainage tunnel.  The sailors on the ships supposedly said that phrase, to which the Emperor Claudius jokingly replied "or not", which led the sailors to refuse to fight.  How they heard him and made this decision is not clear--it's a big lake and there were nearly 20,000 of them. They were finally persuaded to bloody combat and all was well.

However, the phrase had an afterlife in later eras, in paintings, poems, books, movies, etc., and now represents a casual, hip understanding of gladiatorial combat in the ancient world. It even appears in Heinlein's Glory Road, the person addressed changed to the feminine, since Rufo is addressing Star, the Empress.  I remember feeling all cool for recognizing it when I read it as a young man, since Heinlein doesn't explain it. He knew his audience. All of us want to show we know something, but really don't want to put too much work into it. Providing little tidbits like that to the developing intellect is an important and underappreciated function of science fiction novels.

We'll all continue to the use the phrase.  But now you can one-up anyone by referencing Fucine Lake, Claudius, and the sparse historical record when the phrase surfaces. That's sure to gain you the respect of your fellows.

Historically inexplicable: crime falls again

I've mentioned this before, but I might as well do it again: we don't know anything about historical causation.

The crime rate has fallen again. And despite sophisticated statistical models, camera-equipped cell phones everywhere, less mendacious police stats, and a general application of a huge amount of skilled brain power, nobody knows why.  This is happening right now, right here, all around us as we go through our day.

How are we supposed to explain why the Roman Republic fell? What the economic effects of the Black Death were? Why one group of people prospered while another languished? How the Industrial Revolution started? The amount of information available about those things is miniscule compared to the crimes stats of one medium-sized town in Pennsylvania.

It's not that I'm saying it's not worth trying to answer these questions. It certainly is. It's just that I can't believe anyone would say "this is the explanation".

But, of course, the incentives of academia are not the incentives of the rest of the world, and these incentives don't encourage ambiguity or degrees of confidence, and certainly not conclusions that violate predefined norms of ethnicity, sex, or religion.  And most historical work is now done in the Academy. What do we miss because the pursuit of tenure is not the same as the pursuit of truth?

I'd like to think we'll figure some things out. But some will be forever unknown.  And others will have only a relatively small degree of confidence. We'll just have to live with that.

New England: home of lame Civil War generals. And proud of it.

The South loves its romantic generals. As well it should. Though they fought in an evil cause, they were interesting men, and excellent fighters. Fortunately, they lost, and can be regarded almost as fictional characters.

The North won, and one of the reasons it won was that it cared less about military prowess and more about political coalition building. It's frustrating to read about Nathaniel "Commissary" Banks, for example, getting chased around the Shenandoah by the brilliant and deranged Stonewall Jackson and abandoning his stores, thus the nickname. Other campaigns, like the Red River campaign, were notorious for military ineptitude.

There is a noble statue to Banks in the town square in Waltham, where I used to work. He was Speaker of the House of Representatives, Governor of Massachusetts, and apparently much respected.

In front of the Massachusetts State House stands an equestrian statue of the unfortunate Joseph Hooker, who lost the Battle of Chancellorsville. In Providence, Rhode Island, statues of local hero Ambrose Burnside abound.

There are just ones I have noticed myself. It may seem odd, but the war was won, and everyone felt that things had worked out, so there was no need to get mad about this lost battle, or that suicidal charge. After all, war is hard, and very few can be expected to truly excel at it.

This was stimulated by yesterday's thoughts about Benjamin Butler, who, as far as I know, has no statue. But, after all, statues require physical attractiveness as well, which Ben lacked. Ambroze Burnside, everyone conceded, looked great on a horse. I'm not sure how good a horseman the lawyer from Lowell ever could have been....

In praise of Ben Butler

First, let's get the most important thing out of the way:  Benjamin Franklin Butler was short, ugly, and wall-eyed. Stephen Douglas and Alexander Stephens were short, Lincoln was ugly, and while I'm not aware of any Civil War era politicians with strabismus, there surely must have been a few.

But poor Ben had it all, and was pudgy to boot. The tall and handsome are not mocked, and so even the most foolish of them seem to have decent historical reputations. Short ugly people are screwed in that department.

Plus, Ben was not a good general. A political general, he managed logistics well enough, but feared combat, like many other generals did. He failed Grant during Grant's big push toward Richmond in the spring of 1864, but then, so did Sigel and Banks. Success is war is second only to handsomeness as a means of historical approval.

Butler was called to mind by an interesting article in last Sunday's NYT Magazine, about the first slaves to escape across the lines to Union troops early in the Civil War, and Butler's brilliant improvisation of calling them "contrabands of war", thus creating a formula that allowed for freeing escaped slaves without dealing with legal issues of property and reparation.

Ben Butler was involved in many other interesting events in the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1853, just before his inauguration, Franklin Pierce witnessed the death of his 11-year-old son in a railway accident. Pierce's wife, Jane, hired Butler to defend the railroad. She regarded the accident as a judgment from God.  Note: this is largely from memory, and it's hard to find a reference to this incident online.

He then, exceeding his authority, commanded troops that held Baltimore in the early days of the war, helping keep Maryland in the Union.

After his "contraband" improvisation, he commanded the occupation of New Orleans. His actions there, ranging from bold to deliberately provocative (notably, General Order 28), led to his execration throughout the South, and is probably what most people know him for.

After the war he managed the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, wrote several important Civil Rights acts, promoted payment in greenbacks, and entertained and irritated people in a number of public offices, including governor of Massachusetts. He also ran for President.

Years ago, American Heritage ran a striking photograph of a bizarre elevated railway , with Butler sitting pretty in the middle of a gaggle of local notables.  I can't find the photograph itself, but the description of it is here. That Butler is associated with an eccentric form of transportation is a sign--I had forgotten all about that picture when I started writing this post.

Here is a picture of the railway, from this obituary of the inventor.

Benjamin Butler is more interesting than most historical characters who make appearances in historical novels.  I think it's time to rehabilitate him. And give him a ride on a steam-powered monorail.

A way of understanding the Old Testament that any parent of a teenager will understand

Finally having a teenager in the house has illuminated all sorts of previously mysterious subjects for me.  I've previously mentioned how it led me to understand Evil Child narratives.

Now it has led me to a revelation about the Old Testament. I was at the wake of the parent of a friend yesterday. In talking about what she had to do, my friend mentioned how distressing she had found most of the Old Testament quotations on offer for the funeral ceremony. That God seemed permanently pissed off.

I thought about the Israelites and their relationship with their God, and realized that the entire dynamic works perfectly if you regard the Israelites as a teenager, and God as their parent.

God constantly warns the Israelites not to do certain things. Not only do they do them, but they seem to do them just to get God's goat--I mean, if God so clearly exists, why would you go through all that effort to create a Golden Calf, which is just a statue?

But it sure did piss God off.

The Israelites have short attentions spans, never take care of things when they should, are constantly enraged, sulky, or depressed--and then complain when they are not taken care of. They lie, they hide things, but hate being regarded as anything less than honorable. They hang out with bad companions and bring back terrible habits ("I mean, I'm the only people not allowed to worship idols!  Do you have any idea of how much everyone makes fun of me?")

God is short-tempered, saves them from the consequences of their actions, and feeds them. Sometimes He doesn't feel like explaining every detail of His plans, and just wants them to do what they're supposed to do, and then has to deal with a lot of complaints.

Sometimes He loses His temper and slays thousands of them.

They make up afterward, but are never quite comfortable with each other. There is no other option, however:  He is their God, and they are His people. So if the trip across the Sinai seems like the worst family vacation you've ever been on ("Are we there yet?"), it makes perfect sense.

The New Testament is something else. Maybe I'll understand it when my kids get older....