The Netflix version of Homer’s Iliad, which they call “Troy,” does justice to the original.  Completely captivating — a refreshing change for something produced for TV.


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Tolstoy’s War and Peace

There recently was a contest on television rating the 100 best ever works of fiction.  To Kill a Mockingbird was the final winner, but, in my opinion, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace should have been the winner as the best work of fiction ever written — perhaps that will ever be written.

It weaves together various aristocratic romantic as well as, at times, sinister and self-seeking relationships in a backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and ultimate defeat at the hands of the Russian military and the Russian winter.  The central character is this somewhat credulous but very humane character Pierre who seems to always find himself in the middle of things — both the various romantic relationships as well as the French invasion itself.  One finds Pierre committing one folly after another, but going through a learning process and ultimately gaining a deeper humanity for it.

There was a television miniseries based on Tolstoy’s novel that’s now available on Hulu.  The screenplay and staging are both excellent, the acting superior, and the miniseries really does this classic novel complete justice.  Yet the miniseries when it was first aired received little recognition and applause for all of that.  But then again there’s no underestimating American taste.

Nevertheless, Paul Dano played the role of the bumbling but appealing Pierre Bezukhov, the pivotal lead character of the novel, to perfection.  He got both Pierre’s early stupefaction and his later enlightenment and character development just right.  Bravo to Paul Dano for bringing this wonderful Tolstoyan character to life.

War and Peace

War and Peace (2016 TV Series)

Pierre Bezukhov

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The Ultimate Pyrrhic Victory

Let’s see.  Russia can destroy the continental United States in about 20 minutes.  Probably kill about a 1/3 of the population with the initial strike, but of the ones who survived, 90% will die from starvation or radiation.  But the Russia-haters in Congress think it is a good idea to keep poking Russia in the eye with a stick.  I don’t.

I do think our military technology might be slightly better than Russia’s since we spend so much money on it, so that in 20 minutes we kill 1/2 their population, and then 95% of the rest dies from starvation or radiation.  So I suppose you could say we would “win,” right?

Pyrrhic Victory

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Iraq — Our Three Stooges War

During the 1980’s, Iraq and Iran were at war with each other.   Sunni-led Iraq was fighting against Shiite Iran, so that the war had a sectarian character.  The war was fought to a stalemate, and so, ironically, established a clear balance of power between the Sunni countries and the Shiite countries, as neither Iraq nor Iran could make any territorial gains, so that purely sectarian aggression in the Middle East was held in check pretty much throughout the 90’s.

The Iraq War that began in 2003 undermined that precious balance of power.  We went to war to prevent Saddam Hussein from using “weapons of mass destruction,” even though he had none, and to remove him  as an ally of Al-Qaeda, even though he wasn’t one.  But what we did remove was a regime ruled by the Sunnis in Iraq, and replaced it with one ruled by Iraqi Shiites.  The net result was that Iraq invariably fell under the sphere of influence of Iran, as both countries were now  allies as ruled by the same Islamic sect — in essence, Iran ultimately won the 1980’s war without having to fire a shot due to our foolhardy invasion of Iraq.

And without the balance of power represented by the Sunni-led Iraq under Saddam, Iran has extended its hegemony in the region as an ally of Assad in Syria and in support of the powerful Hezbollah party in Lebanon, so that its sphere of influence now extends from its own eastern border all the way to the Mediterranean.  That has been one unfortunate result of our Iraq War.  How did that serve the interest of the United States?

The other unfortunate result has been to launch sectarian civil war throughout the region.  Saddam had kept a lid on the violent sectarianism that stewed in Iraq under a seemingly tranquil surface.  That was in fact his mandate for governing — his raison d’etat — to maintain a strictly Sunni government that would hold in check the Shia and Kurdish segments of the country.  By removing Saddam, we removed that check on the violent sectarianism that seethed just below the surface between the Iraqi Sunnis and the Iraqi Shiites.

But the Sunnis that we displaced in Iraq were not going to be subjugated by Shiites without a fight, and so our displacement of the Sunni-led government of Saddam as well as the disenfranchisement of his Sunni-oriented military led inevitably to the spawning of Sunni extremist groups and civil war first in Iraq, but ultimately with ISIS in both Iraq and Syria — yet another unanticipated consequence of our ill-considered invasion of Iraq.  How did that serve the interest of the United States?

So our Iraq War produced results directly opposite of our interests — creating a much stronger Iran regionally and unleashing an ongoing sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shiite throughout the entire Middle East that had once been held in check by the stalemate from the Iraq/Iran conflict in the 1980’s.   The conclusion is undeniable: We blunder into stupid wars and have no idea of the consequences, not unlike the buffoonish and clumsy behavior of the Three Stooges.

Iraq War


The Three Stooges

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On the Brink

I’m fascinated by the Edwardian Age, that period from the 1890’s to World War 1 when civilization had seemingly reached a pinnacle.  The world had been at peace for decades, and it seemed like war itself was a thing of the past, outmoded, irrelevant.  A new age of civility and manners had dawned on mankind, and industrialization had created immense wealth and widespread prosperity.  In America, this was the Newport era where the wealthy (“Robber Barons”)  built their “cottages” by the sea.   The wealthy on both sides of the “pond” enjoyed themselves with extravagant leisure activities like the new game tennis or endless summer lawn parties for the “in” crowd.

The arts were thriving, and culture had seemingly fused the best of old traditions with amazing modern innovations like the automobile and the bicycle.  In one area the Edwardians did achieve a zenith in culture that had never been reached until then or since, and probably will never be reached again: high fashion.  Men wore the perfect tuxedo and top hat, while curvaceous women — shaped by the devilish corset — enjoyed outrageously stylish big hats and stunningly elegant dresses.  Their high fashion really  puts our Kentucky Derby fashion statement to shame — there simply is no comparison.

Many wealthy young American women married into the British and European aristocracies —  a clear trend.  They brought their financial assets with them, and therefore restored the fortunes of a great number of old European houses, so that European aristocracy witnessed an unexpected renewal and flourished once again.   It was a golden age that looked out upon the future not just with mere hope but with bright confidence — nothing could ever possibly go wrong again, and everything would certainly always go right, to bigger and better things, to a higher and higher state of civilization.

Then Sarajevo happened.  Entangling diplomatic alliances took a very local incident and inflamed it into a general European crisis.  And so war burst upon the Europeans suddenly, like a steamroller exploding out of the night.  And what war!   Trench warfare, “no man’s land,” machine guns, heavy ordinance with gigantic cannons, a new and formidable weapon called “tanks,” airplanes with machine guns and bombs, gas attacks, and a horrendous new affliction dubbed with the apt name “shell shock” — all the horror that modern military technology could bring to bear upon the art of killing large numbers of human beings.  In this diabolical type of war, humans were not really individual soldiers anymore, but so many ants to be crushed en masse under foot by the war machine.

And no one in the Edwardian Age — busy whiling away their leisure time playing tennis at a lawn party in Newport — saw it coming.  Busy with social media and our smart phones, are we not the same today as the Edwardians — without a clue we are on the brink?  Our threat — lest you forget — is nuclear.  Whole cities can be destroyed in a blink.  But that can’t happen, right?

(Still one of the classics, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was banned in Nazi Germany because it was thought it would demoralize the military.  In my opinion, the book is a must read for anyone who considers themselves educated, but, if you prefer, there was also a fine early film made based on the book.)

Edwardian Era

Edwardian Fashion

The Edwardians — a novel


Shell Shock

All Quiet on the Western Front

A Speech Like No Other


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A Speech Like No Other

It was the greatest speech ever given in American history: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at the dedication ceremonies at Gettysburg, given on November 19, 1963.   The speaker before Lincoln, Edward Everett, a very famous orator in his own right, droned on for over 2 hours.  After the respectful — and perhaps thankful — applause upon the conclusion of Everett’s speech, Lincoln took the podium.  His speech lasted less than 2 minutes.  When it ended, there was dead silence from the massive audience that had assembled to hear the speeches and pay their respects at Gettysburg.  There was dead silence because no one realized  the speech, so brief and to the point, had actually ended.  Slowly there was hesitant clapping from the audience.  This — silence and confusion — was the immediate and ironic response to the greatest speech ever given in American history.  Of course, all the Northern newspapers picked it up for their next edition, and when those 272 words were actually read by the public, an immense reaction took place that reverberates to this day.  Such is the power of the printed word.

Gettysburg Address Text

Gettysburg Address History

Where Is Our Leader?


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North Korea — What to Expect

It is hard to see what direction Secretary of State Pompeo will take negotiating with North Korea.  I say this because the ultimate objective for the United States is for North Korea to denuclearize, but having nuclear weapons is really the only card North Korea has to play.  So why would they give them up?   They wouldn’t.

If they do give up their only winning card, the question remains, how would North Korea be protected from a US attack, which is what they really fear?  A treaty could be arranged so that Russia or China, even Russian and China, would guarantee the North Korea borders from attack — that if North Korea were attacked by anyone, one or both would come to their aid.  But why would North Korea trust such an agreement, as it would put one or both of these countries at odds with the United States without much to gain from it themselves?

Furthermore,  everyone is keenly aware of what happened in Libya.  The United States negotiated with Muammar Gaddafi to back away from having nuclear weapons.  He agreed, but subsequently the United States became very involved in his overthrow.  Remember the once all-powerful Gaddafi hiding in a storm drain, and then slaughtered by his angry captors?  That lesson of how vulnerable a country and its leader are without having the ultimate weapon was not lost on Kim Yong-Un or anyone else.  So that the United States might guarantee the North Korean borders if the regime agrees to denuclearize — all of that rings kind of hollow in this light.

Consequently, I see the basic negotiation of denuclearizing North Korea going nowhere.  But does that mean there is no benefit from further negotiation?  Here there is some hope, for there is a subtle benefit that is realistic and achievable.

North Korea and South Korea are technically still at war.  What was signed way back in 1953 was an armistice, not a treaty that ended the war.  So technically they are still at war.  In fact, up until recently, the tension in the demilitarized zone was palpable and very threatening.  The two sides down through the years have shown recurring bouts of open hostility, including an active series of “war games” with American participation in South Korea and unrelenting warlike broadcasts by North Korea.

It could very well be the case that some wars are not started from a sudden decision, but rather a series of small steps and irritations that slowly lead to a crescendo of outrage on either side, so that the slightest spark reaches — to use a nuclear metaphor — critical mass,  and so you have an explosion of outright hostilities.  You have yourself a war.  This was certainly the case in World War 1 where the spark was the assassination of  Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.  Just imagine — an entire world set ablaze because just one person is shot dead.

But it might be that peace works in the opposite direction — a series of small steps at forgiveness and reconciliation until the parties involved become surprised at and even taken aback by any animosity, so that the thought of war seems preposterous, remote.  That first step toward peace in this case might be a much ballyhooed peace treaty that finally ends the war between North Korea and South Korea.  That’s the achievable benefit.  It would in fact change little about the current circumstances, but it would change the mood dramatically, and would be that tiny but real first step away from war, away from the abyss.  A journey of a 100 miles begins with the first step.

But, unfortunately, there is further reason for pessimism about the Korean predicament.  It has to do with the prospects for the country to become unified again.  What you have in South Korea is a Western-style democracy and a capitalist society.  It is a wealthy, industrious, and innovative country with its citizens used to quite a bit of personal freedom as well as civil rights and voting rights.  In short, the people are independent, well to do, and exercise a good deal of self-determination in the conduct of their own lives.

Contrast all of that to what exists in North Korea.  North Korea is a hereditary military dictatorship based on the cult of a supreme leader.   It is a poor country that is barely able to feed itself.  We’ve all seen the satellite night photographs of a pitch black North Korea.  Much of the country’s productive capacity is spent on developing an overly massive military or wasted by the regime for showy propaganda structures that serve no useful benefit for its society.  Its people have no rights and have been thoroughly indoctrinated in a Stalinist-like regime where individuals who voice the slightest disagreement with the regime simply disappear, either permanently or to Gulag-like prisons.  So there is no dissent to speak of, and the people are like robots in their total submission to the state and its supreme leader.  I submit that two such disparate regimes will never ever be reconciled, certainly not without a lot of bloodshed and civil war.

It’s interesting to sit back and look at the Korean situation from the point of view of what would be the worst case scenario from the American perspective and from the North Korean perspective.  The American perspective is pretty easy to understand.  We would not want to see South Korea overrun by North Korea.  This could happen in either of two ways.  The United States might negotiate to leave South Korea if there was sufficient guarantees that North Korea would not invade.  But the United States having left, North Korea might renege on this agreement and invade anyway.  Alternatively, an outright war could break out.  Seoul would be destroyed by the artillery bombardment, the tactical nuclear weapons used by the United States might not be effective in deterring the million-man North Korean army that invades South Korea, and so the whole peninsula, or what’s left of it, would fall to North Korea.  In either of these possibilities, the net result would then place Japan at severe risk — the next domino to fall.  And there is also the outside chance of a North Korean nuclear-armed missile managing to hit American soil.  That’s the American nightmare.

The North Korean worse case scenario is pretty obvious.  The United States military always has its “hawks” recommending that now is the time to take advantage of the enemy — that any further delay is to our disadvantage.  The hawks are always there pressing this argument in every international conflict.  After all, fighting and killing are what they do.   Actually, in this case, the hawk argument, that time is not on our side, is not a hard one to make.  North Korea today probably does not have the reentry technology or the accuracy to hit specific targets in the continental United States, but in 5 years?  Today it is estimated they may have 15 nuclear weapons, but in 5 years?  The clock is ticking.

Nevertheless, should the perception unfold that the North Korean regime is consciously trying to play us along in order to deceive the United States to gain the upper hand in a game of nuclear chicken, such a growing perception would play into the hands of the hawks who would merely reiterate that time is running out on our advantage to ATTACK.  The worse case scenario for North Koreans unfolds when leadership in Washington becomes persuaded by this argument and ultimately agrees with it.  If that synergy between Washington and the hawks were to happen, all of North Korea would hang by a nuclear thread hovering above an annihilation one can scarcely imagine.


Nuclear Winter

European Union (EU) and Tariffs

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