War is Hell

William Tecumseh Sherman wrote that “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it” and he is also credited with originating the title phrase of this post. A brilliant General, he foresaw the entire course of the war before a single shot was fired. Writing before the war he explained how wars are won and lost in this brilliant piece, which should be studied by anyone contemplating war. Wars are won by economics and logistics, not by derring-do:

“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.”
Comments to Prof. David F. Boyd at the Louisiana State Seminary (24 December 1860); quoted in The Civil War: A Narrative (1986) by Shelby Foote, p. 58.

Wars are bad, but Civil Wars are worse. Brother against brother, neighbour against neighbour. All knowing the personality and the value of those they are slaying. Such as this example:

“On Sunday, 16 August, a few hours after the murder of his brother-in-law, Manuel Fernández Montesinos, the mayor of Granada, he was seized by a former deputy of the CEDA, Ramón Ruiz Alonso, who later asserted that Lorca ‘did more damage with his pen than others with their guns’. He was accompanied by Luis García Alix, secretary of Acción Popular, and the Falangist landowner Juan Luis Trescastro, the perpetrator of the crime, who would say later: ’We killed Federico García Lorca. I gave him two shots in the arse as a homosexual.’ H.G. Wells, the president of PEN, demanded details on the fate of Lorca as soon as the news reached the outside world, but the nationalist authorities denied any knowledge of his fate. Lorca’s death remained a forbidden subject in Spain until the death of Franco in 1975.”
Beevor, Anthony (2007), The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, Chapter 9 Page 103. ISBN: 978-0-7538-2165-7

Adivinanza De La Guitarra; Federico García Lorca

En la redonda
seis doncellas
Tres de carne
y tres de plata.
Los sueños de ayer las buscan
pero las tiene abrazadas
un Polifemo de oro.
¡La guitarra!

My (rough) translation:

On the roundabout, six maidens dance,
three of flesh and three of silver.
Pursued by dreams of the past,
but locked in the embrace of a golden Cyclops.
The Guitar!

Wet Words

Ireland of the drought has gone. After an extended spell of hot, dry weather the rain returned to the Emerald Isle with a bang. Not soft, gentle Irish rain, but instant heavy tropical torrential downpour. Sere brown grass and cracked dry ground could not absorb the deluge, so flash floods ensued. Gone as quickly as they arrived and we are left with that muggy, sultry fug that follows heavy rain on hot ground.

I am loving this because I get to use adjectives that Irish people only employ in foreign lands. This summer the vocabulary of Ireland is turgid with climatic superlatives. Gone are the gentle, suggestive watercolour words that usually characterise our weather talk. Instead we use emphatic, direct descriptors that fly in your face like the beggars in the Jemma el-Fnaa in Marrakesh. Primary colour words, like the poker players in “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Loud, strong words, with corners and consonants, that shout ‘hot’ and ‘bright’ across the street instead of the usual lithe, graceful, vowly creatures that whisper gently into your ear of ‘mist’ and ‘drizzle’.

So I have just now learned that language too is determined by the weather. Who knew?

Summer Downpour on Campus; by Juliana Gray

When clouds turn heavy, rich
and mottled as an oyster bed,

when the temperature drops so fast
that fog conjures itself inside the cars,
as if the parking lots were filled
with row upon row of lovers,

when my umbrella veils my face
and threatens to reverse itself
at every gust of wind, and rain
lashes my legs and the hem of my skirt,

but I am walking to meet a man
who’ll buy me coffee and kiss my fingers—

what can be more beautiful, then,
than these boys sprinting through the storm,
laughing, shouldering the rain aside,
running to their dorms, perhaps to class,
carrying, like torches, their useless shoes?

First Principles


I came across the Margaret Atwood poem below, a really powerful piece of work, which talks of first principles.  This blog, this Mindship is a ship of the mind, but I seem to have strayed a little from the sea.  So today is about ships.

A ship can be many things.  A vessel such as a longship, a warship, lightship or a flagship.  It can be airborne if an airship, or off planet if it is a starship or a spaceship.

When you are in a ship it could be a position, such as midship, or a physical place such as a township, and even the ship of state.

It could be a position, a station in life, or a job, as with a midshipman, a deanship, lordship, ladyship, kingship, even Godship, which would be a lot better than hardship.

 It can be a relationship, a kinship, a wardship, twinship, ownership.

A ship can be a movement when you tranship.  And a different type of movement when you worship. Worship of another might be a courtship.

So all in all a ship is a useful thing to have.  So versatile.


My daughter plays on the floor
with plastic letters,
red, blue & hard yellow,
learning how to spell,
how to make spells.

I wonder how many women
denied themselves daughters,
closed themselves in rooms,
drew the curtains
so they could mainline words.

A child is not a poem,
a poem is not a child.
there is no either/or.

I return to the story
of the woman caught in the war
& in labour, her thighs tied
together by the enemy
so she could not give birth.

Ancestress: the burning witch,
her mouth covered by leather
to strangle words.

A word after a word
after a word is power.

At the point where language falls away
from the hot bones, at the point
where the rock breaks open and darkness
flows out of it like blood, at
the melting point of granite
when the bones know
they are hollow & the word
splits & doubles & speaks
the truth & the body
itself becomes a mouth.

This is a metaphor.

How do you learn to spell?
Blood, sky & the sun,
your own name first,
your first naming, your first name,
your first word.

Margaret Atwood

Bastille Day

Today is the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in 1798, the seminal action of the French Revolution.  The impact of that revolution continues to be felt today.  The French Revolution was an event that marked a watershed in world politics.  Prior to the revolution the affairs of the world were dictated by three broad conditions.

1.      God ruled, and understanding of affairs came from an understanding of the will of God.  

2.      In the Catholic nations the will of God was interpreted by the Pope.  A strong papal representation was present in all the Catholic courts of Europe.

3.      Monarchs took their authority from God, and ruled with divine right.

Now I know that the British out there are saying “wait a minute, we lobbed off Charlies head and did away with divine right way back in 1649.  Agreed, but you also restored the monarchy albeit in a far more controlled manner.  The rest of Europe was still lagging a long way behind.

After the French revolution the affairs of the world were dictated by a different set of conditions.

1.      The scientific method became fundamental to human endeavour.  Rational proof replaced fervent belief as the basis for understanding.

2.      Since religion is founded on belief and not on rational proof, the power of the church waned considerably in the affairs of men.

3.      The monarchy as a method for rule lost credibility with the passing years.  People realised that it was better to be ruled by logic and merit than by divinity and birth.

To avoid traffic jams of pilgrims entering and leaving Rome, Popes advised that pilgrims walk on the left side of the road.  The French in the revolution rejected the pope by instructing their troops to march on the right.  This is why some countries now drive on the right and others drive on the left.

The evolution of the European Union today owes its origin to the visions of Napoleon Bonaparte.  It was he who had the vision of a continental system with a single set of weights and measures and a single currency.

It took centuries for the changes wrought by the French Revolution to work their way through society.  The vision of a European Union was eventually realised only after the devastation of two world wars.

Bastille day 1916 was around the mid-point of the Somme Offensive.  In 1944 Bastille day was in the middle of the Battle of the Hedgerows, or the Battle for St Lo in Normandy, part of the Normandy invasion.

In 1998 on Bastille day my daughter was born and the Tour de France made its first and only visit to Ireland.

We as a society need to protect the values of the French Revolution.  We need to defend reason and logic over misinformation, propaganda and blind faith.  Too many good people died to give us rational democracy for us to give it away.  Protect your rights, protect your democracy, inform yourself, and for the sake of logic and reason, please exercise your vote!

Arms and the Boy:  Wilfred Owen

1 Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
2 How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
3 Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
4 And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

5 Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads
6 Which long to muzzle in the hearts of lads.
7 Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
8 Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.

9 For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
10 There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
11 And God will grow no talons at his heels,
12 Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.


Oriental Democracy

Last year it all seemed so positive.  The people of Egypt rose up as one and demanded democratic rights.  The army found itself in an untenable position and ceded control.  Elections were held.  The right wing did not like the result.  They gave Morsi one year as president, and now he has been deposed and arrested.


Where have we seen this before?  Spain in the 1930’s is a good example.  A stagnant traditionalist and impoverished state.  The people demand democracy.  The vested interests must concede to elections.  They don’t like the result.  In steps the army.  Civil war.


Same thing in Chile with Allende.  It has happened in numerous African states.


So what is the problem?


Well, the problem is that democracy is a very imperfect solution.  Good solutions tend to be ambiguous, slow, evolutionary.  Democracy works well when you have already had democracy for a long time.  The problem with Egypt today and Spain and Chile in the past is that they tried to use democracy to solve a state of national crisis. 


When you have a national crisis what you need is simple, fast solutions delivered by strong, unified and aligned interests.  You want a demagogue, a benevolent dictator.  You want a Nasser  (before he lost the 6 day war).  You want Mussolini (before people learned he was stupid).  You want Hitler (up until 1940 when his success turned him into a megalomaniac).


Arabic nations in particular seem to venerate autocracy.  They seem to see the world the way Europe did back when Kings had the divine right to rule.  Power flows from Allah to the Prophet and down to the Leader.  In Europe we are astounded by the strength of trust and loyalty generated by people such as Gaddafi, Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Bashr Al Assad. 


I have come across a theory that the difference in nature between oriental and occidental rule is founded in the difference in the land between Persia and Greece.  In Persia the lands are broad and relatively easy to traverse.  Tribes can migrate with relative ease.  Peoples moved freely westwards from the Asian steppes, northwards from Arabia and southwards from the Russian steppes.  To defend your lands from intruders you needed a strong centralist authority which could depend upon the unity and support of the people.  As a result the first great bronze age civilizations rose in Mesopotamia.  Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, the Hittites etc.


By contrast Greece is a land of rocky valleys and islands.  Each valley and each island is a land onto itself, with its own lord, its own army, its own economy.  It is very difficult for invaders to move across Greece.  Passes are few and narrow, and the locals use them effectively for ambush.  As a result Greece developed into a plethora of fiercely independent states.  Different states experimented with different forms of government.  They had single kings as in Macedonia, dual kings as in Sparta.  There were tyrants, ruling councils, democracies, republics, oligarchies and theocracies.  Through trial and error some of these systems were found to be better than others, and they evolved into the modern federal style of republic that is most common today.  We incorrectly call it democracy.


When Europe and America went through the throes of religious wars, the dissolution of the Roman Empire, the rise of feudalism, the emergence of the nation state, the rise of free thinking, the age of revolution and the First World War, the Arabic world was blessed with the stable and benevolent rule of the Ottomans.  They had the only ruler in history to earn the epithet “Magnificent” and Suleiman truly was magnificent.  Under his rule the Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Balkan peoples and Persians had a legal system far surpassing anything in Europe for centuries.  They were clean, well fed and secure.


To a Turk in the 1550’s Europe seemed a dirty and dangerous place.  By the 1900’s it did not seem a whole lot better.  Loyalty to the Sublime Porte seemed far superior to the disunity of English and French parliaments.


It is really only since the end of the First World War that the West has prospered and the Middle East has reeled from crisis to crisis.  And why has the Middle East failed?  Well, because the Western Nations dismantled the central control of the Ottomans.  We broke up their Empire, divided out the lands and handed them out to western flunkeys.


Eventually the people of those lands tire of the western approved rulers and throw them out.  The people who lead the throwing out tend to be strong characters with good support either from the military or from tribal structures.  The nations of the Middle East have no history of success with democratic government.  When they look back into history they equate stability, peace and wealth with unity, loyalty and autocracy.  They do not have the western appetite for deontology and individualism at the expense of the state.  They value utilitarianism and teleological sacrifice of the individual’s desires to the common good.


Is it any wonder that the Arab spring has stalled?  It will take a number of evolutions and revolutions before these nations “get” democracy.  The West must be patient.


Ozymandias; by Percy Bysshe Shelley


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Ship of Fools


Ship of Fools by Hieronymus Bosch (1490-1500)

The allegorical concept of the ship of fools served in the middle ages as a counterpoint to the “Ark of Salvation” represented by the Catholic Church. The authorities in Rome used it as a teaching tool to expose the “folly” of independent thinking and the rise of Protestantism. In simple terms, the Catholic Church, with the Pope at the helm, was bound for the hereafter, and the Protestant churches were rudderless, leaderless, adrift and bound for who knows where?

In practical terms there were actual “ships of fools”. They were the renaissance version of the freak show. Communities could divest themselves of lunatics by handing them over to the ship of fools. When the ship docked you paid an entry fee to see the antics of the fools aboard.

The concept of the State as a ship is far older, going back to ancient Greece. Plato immortalised it in “The Republic” when he likened the good management of the state to the good captaincy of a ship. A well run state should be captained by a philosopher king, ideally one trained in the Platonic school.

It is very easy to string together the concepts of Ship of State and Ship of Fools to come up with the State of Fools that is the Irish Government. Recent revelations show how the Irish Government was played for a fool by the executives in Anglo Irish Bank. The tapes expose the bankers themselves to ridicule. They come across as little more than a clique of silly schoolboys playing games with a lot of money. Their behaviour would be puerile in a football locker room, it has no place in a national bank.

What is really sad is how the regulators and the government were asleep at the wheel. When they were called on deck to save the ship they didn’t know their location or their direction and were sailing without compass, sextant or chart. As long as the bankers were playing with bank money they exposed nobody but those foolish enough to trust them. When the Irish Government agreed to support the banks, they made the people of Ireland responsible for the bad behaviour of the bankers. Not just bad, but downright fraudulent behaviour.

If you asked me ten years ago for my opinion of those running our banks, our banking system and the government I would probably have believed them to be knowledgeable and capable. I would have thought that they held the best interests of the state at heart. I would have felt that they held their very well-paid positions through merit and deserved the money they earned.

Now I believe that the managers of our banks and our elected politicians are deeply flawed characters. They hold their own interests ahead of those of the state. They are not well qualified for what they do. They plan only in the very short term. They are grossly overpaid. They are a very, very expensive bunch of fools.

The Ship of State: by Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace)

O ship the fresh tide carries back to sea again.
Where are you going! Quickly, run for harbour.
Can’t you see how your sides
have been stripped bare of oars,

how your shattered masts and yards are groaning loudly
in the swift south-westerly, and bare of rigging,
your hull can scarce tolerate
the overpowering waters?

You haven’t a single sail that’s still intact now,
no gods, that people call to when they’re in trouble.
Though you’re built of Pontic pine,
a child of those famous forests,

though you can boast of your race, and an idle name:
the fearful sailor puts no faith in gaudy keels.
You must beware of being
merely a plaything of the winds.

You, who not long ago were troubling weariness
to me, and now are my passion and anxious care,
avoid the glistening seas
between the shining Cyclades.