Cassandra’s Fate

The historian Carl Becker stated, “History is the memory of things said and done.”

The overwhelming majority of individuals who make their living as historians are attached to institutions of higher learning as teachers and researchers. They hold advanced degrees in their discipline and have settled into professorships that provide them with both a lectern to share their knowledge with students and the means to pursue their specific lines of interest. When they publish the results of their probing into the past, as they necessarily must, their colleagues critique their work. Aware that unconscious cultural biases that gain the blessing of the academy can be as seditious as the intentional perpetuation of prejudices, and relying on their own views and methodologies, the history doctors will sharpen their scalpels and examine the new work for pathologies. Spirited discussion will ensue.

Preserving “the memory of things said and done” is not the exclusive province of professionals. There are also historians who practice outside the formal confines of academic approval. Their work is not subject to peer review, but relies instead on popular acceptance. Their general audience, not having the resources or the expertise to challenge the work presented to them, must trust the honesty of the historian, learn to recognize authors with a particular axe to grind, and keep their skepticism within reach.

Barbara Tuchman (1912 – 1989) stood outside the academic pale. She was a graduate of Radcliffe College (1933) with a strong background in history and literature, but she never obtained an advanced degree in any field and was never associated with a university. She was not a professional historian with a talent for writing, but a superb writer with a passion for historical subjects, as attested by her Pulitzer prizes for The Guns of August (1962) and for Stilwell and the American Experience in China (1971).

In The March of Folly (1984), Tuchman poses the hypothesis that governments often pursue policies contrary to their own interests. She offers seven preliminary examples and four detailed case studies, one drawn from mythic literature and three from history.

“Pursuit of Policy Contrary to Self-Interest” (1) The obstinacy of King Rehoboam of Israel precipitates a war that forever divides the twelve tribes. (2) The superstition of Montezuma, ruler of an Aztec empire of five million people, abets the Spanish conquest by Cortes with 600 soldiers. (3) In the late 6th century, the Visigoth king Recared attempts to unify the antagonistic Arian Christian and Roman Catholic factions in the Iberian peninsula, making the fateful decision to elevate the Catholics to supreme authority, initiating two centuries of land seizures and persecutions of non-Christians. In 711, the Jews invite the Moors to invade Spain, resulting in the establishment of an Islamic civilization in southern Europe that would persist for nearly 800 years. (4) The 72-year reign of Louis XIV exhausts the resources of France through ceaseless wars and the counterproductive suppression of the Huguenots, setting the table for the French Revolution. (5) After 35 years of revolution, counter-revolution, and Napoleonic reign, Charles X, aided by his state-subsidized Ultras, tries to reconstitute the shattered monarchy in France, reminding everyone that Bourbon dynasts “learn nothing and forget nothing.” (6) The German High Command decides to resume unlimited submarine warfare in January 1917 based on their invalid estimation of American readiness to enter the First World War on the side of the Allied Powers. (7) Recalling the success of their preemptive strike against Russia at Port Arthur in 1904, the Japanese try to ensure their ambitions for a Pacific empire with a knockout blow against the United States at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The case studies:

“Prototype: The Trojans Take the Wooden Horse Within Their Walls”. The tale from Homer’s Odyssey relates how wiser heads among the the Trojans are ignored when they are presented with the Wooden Horse left behind by the Greeks.

“The Renaissance Popes Provoke the Protestant Secession: 1470 – 1530”. A succession of six popes in the late 15th and early 16th centuries turn a deaf ear to cries for reform of the Church, use their pontificates to exercise secular power, and deplete the Vatican treasury for armed connivance against their enemies, for grandiose displays of their status, and for the enrichment of their families, making inevitable the Protestant Reformation.

“The British Lose America”. Beginning with the reasonable hope of recovering the costs of defending their American colonists in the French – Indian War (1756 – 1763), the ineptitude of British cabinet ministers, the intractability of negligent attitudes toward the Americas, the demands of a mercantilist economic system, and incessant intrigues and antagonisms between England and France contribute to Great Britain’s loss of the American colonies.

“America Betrays herself in Vietnam.” Fear of Communist expansionism, the Revolution in China, and domestic political pressure from the right push America into attempting to control Vietnamese destiny after the expulsion of France from Indochina. Thirty years of American military and economic involvement (dating from the supply of U.S. military transport for French troops to restore colonial control in 1945 through the fall of Saigon in 1975) yield disastrous results.

Tuchman describes her work as “chronological narrative”. She understood the methods of historical research and used primary sources (diaries, memoirs, correspondence, archival records, site visits, interviews with principals) whenever possible. She made a point of having no overall philosophy of history, but saw instead “human conduct as a steady stream running through endless fields of changing circumstances” and realized the importance of allowing research material to shape her view rather than imposing her view on the material. Her training as a journalist with The Nation (owned by her father, Maurice Wertheim) served her well, gracing her literary style with confidant brevity, a sharp sense of the salient fact or incident, and just the right touch of wit.

Barbara Tuchman’s collected writings constitute a splendid “memory of things said and done”. In The March of Folly she does not despair of human wisdom, but advances the case that its presence in government is unfortunately rare.

(Review posted on, August 2011)


Fuse Lit

The First World War (1914 – 1918) was the most devastating catastrophe to envelope European civilization since the 14th century Black Death that had killed 25% – 30% of the population from Central Asia to the British Isles. The Second World War (1939 – 1945) was larger in scope, involved more nations and geographic territory, and caused more numerous casualties, but it was manifestly an extension of the unresolved problems and the unsatisfactory treaty that concluded the Great War.

Before 1914 an atmosphere of optimism prevailed. Science had unveiled technological miracles that vastly enhanced industrial capability and improved living conditions at every turn. In the prior century, the steam engine, railroads, the telegraph and telephone, the harnessing of electricity, and the invention of the incandescent light bulb had amazed everyone. The previous 20 years alone had produced the motion picture, the automobile, and the airplane. Peace and disarmament conferences, while achieving little, at least demonstrated recognition among powerful nations that the time might come when war would cease to be an acceptable mode of political expression. Absolute tyrannies were gradually giving way to parliamentary democracies, human rights were becoming institutionalized, persistent social and economic injustices were being acknowledged and discussed. The sobering implications of Nietzsche’s and Freud’s insights on human willfulness had yet to be absorbed.

On June 28, 1914, in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, a 19 year-old Serbian terrorist shot dead the heir to the Habsburg throne, putting a match to the fuse that would detonate European equanimity, demolishing four empires in the process, and shredding the hopeful illusion that human beings were on the threshold of Utopia.

What had happened? So many books have been written on the origins of the First World War that a scholar could spend a lifetime gaining familiarity with the crucial period 1871 – 1914 that had made the clash of nations all but inevitable. Who was responsible?

In The Long Fuse (1965) Laurence Lafore argues that definitive finger pointing is neither possible nor profitable. Lafore was a Professor of History at Swarthmore College who had worked for the State Department during World War II. Though there is abundant blame to distribute, Lafore identifies a major culprit. “In tracing almost any of the circumstances that were most critical in 1914, one is led back to the national conflicts of Central and Southeastern Europe.”

The Habsburg Monarchy, dynastic rulers since the 13th century of the polyglot collection of mutually hostile ethnic groups and expansive terrain known as Austria-Hungary, had failed either to unify the diverse interests and loyalties of their subjects or to facilitate their clamor, where it existed, for independence.

Germans, Magyars, Czechs, Slovenes, Ruthenes, Poles, Rumanians, and Serbo-Croats rubbed shoulders within the empire in various concentrations, each with distinct language, history, traditions, and aspirations. To complicate matters, religious affiliations were distributed among Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Moslem, and Jewish worshippers whose theological tolerance for each other was at best nominal.

The Serbs had already broken from their former masters, the corrupt and disintegrating Ottoman Empire, and felt they had earned their right to form a Pan-Slavic state in the Balkans, including elements of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In this ambition they were actively encouraged by the Russian Empire, Slavic themselves and long antagonistic toward the Ottoman Turks because Russia thirsted for a warm water port and control of Constantinople, situated on the narrow strait between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, a tantalizing goal always eluding their grasp.

The Russian Empire, neighbor to Austria-Hungary, had exhibited an appetite for westward expansion. In the late 19th century Russia had cemented an alliance with France, forever smarting over their defeat by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War (1870 – 1871), and the subsequent annexation of Alsace and Lorraine by the German Empire. The Germans had always been nervous about their lengthy border with Russia and felt themselves menacingly encircled by the Russian alliance with France. As a counter-balance, Germany had reluctantly allied its military fortunes with Austria-Hungary.

England had observed these Continental alliances with ambivalence until they learned from bitter experience in the Boer War (1899 – 1902) that Britain’s diplomatic policy of “splendid isolation” might not work to their advantage in the protection of their far-flung colonial holdings and the safe guarantee of their maritime trade. As a consequence, they found it expedient to cultivate a military entente cordiale with France in response to strident German saber rattling in the press and naval buildup on the high seas.

Generals, they say, are always fighting the last war. The last major European war had ended in 1871. Things had changed. The same science that had wrought exhilarating inventions for life’s betterment had also “in the peculiar equilibrium of military technology” improved armaments for life’s destruction. Germany’s capacity for arms manufacture was prodigious. France longed for revanche over lost Alsace-Lorraine and had devoted two generations to preparations for war. Great Britain had introduced the dreadnought to dominate naval action. Russia could mobilize millions of men for swarming attacks on any land opponent. The peace Europe had enjoyed for over 40 years had ossified military strategies.

The Habsburg Monarchy that felt its prestige was crucial to the governance of its unwieldy empire could scarcely afford to let the assassination of its heir by Serbian anarchists go unpunished. Although its ruling class, diplomatic corps, high ranking bureaucrats, and military establishment were all keenly aware that war with Serbia would certainly provoke Russian mobilization, which in turn would trigger French and German war plans, they approached the crisis with cavalier disregard of its likely consequences. All sides contemplating armed conflict counted on a short war, limited in its aims and extent. No one envisioned the prolonged carnage that followed.

Four years of pointless slaughter left ten million dead. Another ten million were afflicted with injury: missing limbs, gas poisoning, shellshock. The destruction of roads, railways, and bridges, the disruption of services and communications, and the exhaustion of medical supplies left another seventeen million people helpless to cope with the Spanish influenza pandemic that immediately followed the war. Economies were in ruins. The Russian dynasty was toppled from within and transformed into a Soviet Union that would be locked down for 74 years. The German Empire crumpled and, saddled with punitive war reparations that strangled the Weimar Republic in its crib, gave platform and purpose to Hitler. At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the Ottoman Empire was parceled out among the victors. The careless mapmakers carved the Austro-Hungarian Empire into national states along arbitrary lines that served their own designs but did little to quell anxieties or fulfill hopes among the congeries of determined peoples that the Habsburgs had failed to hold together by sheer dynastic will.

This was the excruciating fact: the war had occurred among the very people who thought of themselves as the pinnacle of civilization, who had made an idol of Progress and an inexorability of human advancement. By the close of 1918, the very idea of Progress lay prostrate, punctured by exploding shells like the hundreds of thousands of corpses that lay rotting for no reason in No Man’s Land.

The Long Fuse is an excellent summary of the complexities leading to the Great War. Professor Lafore’s impeccable prose is precise and uncluttered, marshaling the profusion of facts admirably, presenting characters and events in a manner that sustains dramatic suspense even though we are familiar with story and are left to inhabit the tense, unsettled world of its consequences.

(Review posted on, October 2011)

Have Road; Will Travel

    “Ten thousand dreams ensepulchered within their crozzled hearts. They went on…”

    The Road (2006) is Cormac McCarthy’s elegy to a desolate world and a perishing species that will not quit in spite of every evidence that the struggle for survival is etched in fear, engenders futility, and ends in death. Nevertheless, the “fire” burns within and it refuses to be extinguished.

    There is love, of course, though in The Road it is not a response to reproductive urges or a self-regarding sentimentality, but a means of keeping the “fire” lit.

    There is much ado about fire in The Road. The persistent chill that has settled over the world – the snow, the freezing rain, and the bitter wind – is more threatening to the survivors than anything other than the survivors themselves, now regressed to rags, rudimentary weapons, and cannibalistic savagery.

    The fiery holocaust that has reduced the world to melted macadam, trees seared to their trunks, and endless dark horizons, is never specified. It is the Promethean fire of Greek mythology – a gift of the gods that should never have been entrusted to humans because it is an aspect of divinity and humans are demonstrably not gods. But the need of warmth represented by fire, literal and symbolic, is the bond that holds humans together.

    McCarthy emphasizes that his sublime, stone gray poem is about humanity rather than about individuals by assigning no names to any of the characters. Even the man and the boy, who are father and son, do not refer to each other by name or by reference to their relationship. They are now but one generation passing the torch to the next. Why? Why, indeed.

    The eternal need for food is also as much a symbol as a plot device. Creatures cannot carry on without sustenance. The motion of the characters is driven by their continual search for nourishment, physical and spiritual. They necessarily risk hazard and horror to keep themselves pushing toward an uncertain destination. This is life on The Road. This is life, period.

    The most exhilarating moments for the characters do not lie in their tentative attachment to each other, but in their shared joys of discovery. A deserted gas station yields a few precious drops of fuel; an abandoned house harbors mason jars of preserved fruit; a hidden fallout shelter provides a cornucopia of canned goods; a half-submerged yacht is a sunken treasure chest of tools. None of these wondrous moments are redemptive. They merely keep the characters alive, in hope, and in step toward their unknown fate.

    McCarthy’s scenes seize the concrete detail. They are lovingly filigreed with meticulous descriptions of mechanical fittings, carpentered structures, and the crafted detritus spilling rusted and rotten from the slit belly of defunct civilization.

    McCarthy decorates every page with lyrical invention. The characters trudge forward with weary rhythmic cadences in language of rhapsodic clarity.

    “The mummified dead everywhere. The flesh cloven along the bones, the ligaments dried to tug and taut as wires. Shriveled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth.”

    “Water dripped in puddles on the floor. Small bubbles appeared and skated and vanished again. In a town in the piedmont they’d slept in a place like this and listened to the rain. There was an oldfashioned drugstore there with a black marble counter and chrome stools with tattered plastic seats patched with electrical tape.”

    “Glass floats covered with a gray crust. The bones of seabirds. At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as the eye could see like an isocline of death. One vast salt sepulcher.”

    These passages are more than words. They are notes and chords in musical constructions of symphonic majesty. They are feelings captured in ink, pinned to the pages in hypnotic tropes. They dodge interpretive processes and dance directly on the cerebral cortex.

    Life is inflated with misery, but still we carry on. Why? Why, indeed. It is not enough to say, “What else is there?” The most scorching agony felt by the man in The Road is that his beloved wife found nothing to live for, not even for his love or her son’s.

    The Road murmurs that we cannot find our redemption in others. The “fire” burns within each of us, and we sustain it not by reward but by our will.

(Review posted on, August 2010)

The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary

    Among the world’s creatures we humans have no closer relative than the chimpanzee. Author Andrew Westoll notes in The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary (2011) that we share “99.4% of our useful DNA with these primates, a correspondence that ought to have enhanced their chances of survival, but has in fact worked to their dire disadvantage. Due to human taxonomic proximity to chimpanzees, they have been ruthlessly exploited since the 1940s under the assumption that their physiological similarities might make them ideal substitutes for human subjects in medical research.

    One synonym for “research” in this context might be “torture”. Chimpanzees are intensely social, needing years of physical contact with their mothers to acquire the skills necessary to be functional adults in their natural habitats. Research subjects – formerly captured in the wild, but now more usually bred in captivity – are weaned from their mothers within their first year, housed individually in cages, frequently knocked unconscious with tranquilizing darts, infected with a panoply of diseases, stabbed with needles and scalpels for blood samples and biopsies, fed on bland diets for pure sustenance, and isolated from social interaction with others of their own species. Eventually all such subjects reach a physical and psychological saturation point that renders them unfit for further research. They could not survive if returned to the the wild. They would be unmanageable incarcerated in zoos. They are far too dangerous to be adopted into human households. Euthanasia as reward for their service to humanity engages profound moral scruples.

    The same problems apply to chimps trained to be circus or film performers, those involved in university behavioral studies, or individuals raised as family pets. Adult chimpanzees can weigh upwards of 200 pounds, are many times stronger than humans, and have aggressive tendencies that can be triggered by fear or misinterpretation of human intentions. What humane course is available for these animals?

    The Fauna Sanctuary, situated on a 240-acre farm outside of Chambly, Quebec, is one of the precious few facilities designed for the retirement of chimps. Owned and operated by Gloria Grow, her veterinarian partner Richard Allan, her sister Dawna, and a small permanent staff reinforced by volunteers, the sanctuary is home to dozens of animal residents. Its central occupation, however, is the full-time care of it 13 chimpanzees.

    Andrew Westoll, a biologist who had studied capuchin monkeys in Suriname, persuaded Grow to accept him as a volunteer. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is his account of his several months stay. Written in journalistic style with self-effacing humor, vivd descriptions of his daily duties, the principal personalities who run the sanctuary, and the personal relationships he established with the chimps, Westoll back-fills his story with the history of chimpanzee relations with humans since their first encounter with Europeans in 1607, the development of primate research centers in the United States, brief portraits of the major figures in 20th century chimpanzee studies, and analysis of the various political movements and legal actions that arose in response to the use of chimps for invasive medical research, particularly in the wake of the HIV epidemic that surfaced in the early 1980s.

    Westoll’s book makes no pretense of scientific insight. The reader who is interested in strictly zoological aspects of chimpanzees might consult the works of Jane Goodall, Robert M. Yerkes, or other sources referenced in the “Further Reading” section. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is animal rights advocacy based on the author’s philosophical outlook, professional experience, and sincere convictions about the ethical treatment of other creatures with whom we share the biosphere.

    Westoll conveys his awe and affection for the great apes he came to know at Fauna Sanctuary in amiable fashion with a fine storyteller’s eye and ear for the delightful detail, the revealing incident, and the inspirational moment.

(Review posted on, June 2011)