Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Walls of Rome

As the barbarian cavalty stormed into Rome, the people of the city were within earshot of the screams of those dying in the fighting.But the people paid no attention. They were watching the gladiators and the games. That's what we're doing. A world that we knew is dying. And few are noticing.

The western powers rose to military dominance with Columbus. It wasn't so much Columbus. It was the development of ships like Santa Maria, Pinta and Nina that could handle long distance voyages, and give easy access to the world. The military dominance was also based on an inheritamce of an understanding of war going back at least to the ancient Greeks. With ships and trained armies, even small Euopean countries could conquer the world.

Spain and Portugal  defeated, enslaved and robbed millions in South American and Central America with armies that were sometimes barely over a hundred figthing men. Britain conquered what is now India, Bangladesh and Pakistan with only2,000 soldiers. Tiny Belgium murdered some five million and enslaved and looted the living with its small army in Congo.

With military dominance came the economic dominance that built European and American prosperity. But it's over. And we're too busy watching the games to see it.

The reversal came with the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in World War Two. Such a fortress had never before fallen to a non-European army. The Korean War, pitting Europe and North America, as well as South Korea against China, could barely be fought to a draw. France lost in Indo-China, followed by the US in Vietnam.  Then France lost in North Africa. The US lost in Cuba. There was no serious fighting in Cuba; but Castro outlasted the US so that now US dominance in Latin America is in serious trouble. Britain saw the writing on the wall; and was wise enough to get out of the empire game.

The US could beat Iraq only with a massive technological superiority and a willingness to kill a million innocent people. Even now, almost ten years later, Iraq can still be held with an army of occupation. The US is losing in Afghanistan. And American citizens, like the Romans before them, have lost their enthusiasm to "spread democracy". Like George Bush in his youth, they prefer the safety of home. Like that of Rome, the wars of the US depend on mercenaries.

As with the Roman Empire, the West conquered colonies by the military but for the economy, for the profit in them. What we are watching now is the fall of the last western empire. It began with the fall of Singapore. That's what first showed the conquered could learn the lessons of war. They could adapt them even to fighting against a technologyically advanced enemy. And win, even against the West.

From Columbus to Singapore was a long time. From Singapore to the collapse of the US will be much shorter.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A story in progress (7)

The officers' mess was all men, cavalrymen. Of course, few of them had ever ridden a horse; not since that day almost a century ago when the regiment had been called out to chase demonstrators in the first great depression, the one back in the 1930s.  The colonel, a chubby, red-faced man at the head table, was the only person there who actually owned a horse; he stabled it near a great park must behind the regimental armoury. He rode it every Sunday.  Civilian guests were always reminded of the colonel's love of riding. He was a symbol of the regiment's spirit. They drove tanks, now. But they were hussars, every one of them descended from that breed who charged into guns, leaning forward over their horses' necks, sabres held high with blades curving downwards.

Nowadays, Captain Dan wore pretty much the same dull camouflage as even the commonest soldiers. But  as he glanced at his old friend and guest, George, he felt the pride of his formal mess kit -  with boots, spurs, sabre, and a deep blue cloak flung over his left shoulder. . Dan was a soldier, not just a thug like the mercenaries George contracted out.

"Strange, isn't it Dan? I was the big kid. I kept the school bullies off you. Now look at us. I'm still big. But you're the one who turned out to be the real fighter."

"Couldn"t do it without you, George. I always have a squad of your boys going well ahead of me. I don't move until they tell me it's clear. Wouldn't last a day without them."

George grinned. It was true. He knew he'd done a good job recruiting them, or as good as could be done with men from every and any part of the world, men who wanted work, any kind of work. Hardly anybody at home wanted to join the army anymore.

There was no choice in this endless war against terrorism. The country needed "private contractors", whoever they could get from wherever. Then he looked thoughtful. Patriots like Dan were rare these days. Very few men or women, even in these hard times, were interested in military service  And mercenaries were getting expensive. He glanced at the head table. It really reflected the importance of the regiment. Heads of the biggest corporations in the country were there. And right at the centre was the President, himself. Like all the presidents, he had to be tough and confident. That was the only way to win election by the Council of CEOs.

A sound like gunshots silenced the mess as the Colonel tapped a finger on the microphone. The officers snapped to attention as one man, with the civilian guests rising like a ragged and awkward puppets to stand in their business suits beside the rigid men in spurred boots, the men with the deep blue cloaks flung over their shoulders.

"At ease, gentlemen." The officers raised and stamped their left feet in unison, each left foot exactly the same distance from its right mate. "We will now be honoured with a short address from our Commander-in-Chief and President of the Council of CEOs. As the familiar form of the president rose to the microphone, the officers in unison snapped to attention, to a salute,then hands rigidly down along the trouser seams and feet back at attention. Civilian guests fluttered,wondering what to do.

The president nodded to the Colonel, "Thank you for inviting me to this annual dinner of the Royal Canadian Hussars." Then, turning to the officers, "This is a short message. I really want to tell you all how much we thank you for your untiring work in this long war on terrorism. And you are winning. This nation of North America, along with our Russian friends, is going to protect North American and Russian values, and spread them over the world - thanks to you and your courage and sacrifice and pride. God bless you all."

A major took the mike. "Saddles."

The officers resumed their seats, each placing both hands flat on the table.

Each officer, along with some guests who knew the regimental ceremony, clapped hands on the table at a walking pace  - left, right, left, right...
"Advance at the trot."

The hands beat more quickly. Some officers leaned forward, grinning in anticipation.


The hands now beat fast and wild, all of the officers leaning foreward in a frenzy of whoops. A young officer leaped to  his feet, leaned forward, and held high his sabre with the blade curving downward.. The madhouse of the charge lasted for a full two minutes, then slowed and stopped in triumphant exhaustion.

"Pass the port."

A private came to Captain Dan's table to give him a bottle. Dan poured it into his glass; then handed the bottle to George.

"No, George. Don't put it down. Pour yours, and pass it on. The bottle must never touch the table."

"I guess these old cavalry traditions are pretty important, eh?"

"When you're out there, on your own, these traditions are all that keep you alive. I love them."

George's chauffeur was waiting for them as they left the armoury. Captain Dan knew George was rich; but he had had been surprised earlier in the day by the magnificence of George's home and car. As they sank into the lounge chairs in the rear compatment, and George offered him a very fine scotch (from Hungary), Captain Dan had to say, "I'd heard things were pretty tough here on the home front. How do you afford all this?"

"Things are tough. But that's the law of the marketplace. People are cheap. That's why I can afford a chauffeur and cook and maids. It's tough.  But the law of the marketplace is the only way we'll bring prosperity back."

"Getting any terrorist problems?"

"No. Nothing to speak of. The news media have been a big help.  They put the news out so people can understand what this is all for. They understand it's for them. And they get all the free entertainment they want. I can tell you, most people up here don't have any time or sympathy for terrorists. They appreciate what you're doing."

The electrified gates opened automically as the car approached to sweep through, then closed  as silently as they had opened. The chauffeur stopped; and the car gently sank below the lawn. George led Captain Dan to a doorway. He opened the door.

"I know you're tired." He put his hand on Captain Dam's shoulder. "Get a good sleep. We'll have time for a talk tomorrow before you head back to the front." Dan nodded. He was tired. There had been a lot of travel for one day. Tired as he was, he took the time to hang up his mess kit neatly before he sank into the bed, and drifted into a deep sleep.


Captain Dan jumped out of bed, head shrunk into his shoulders as he peered at the virtual trees around him, and the virtual sunlight streaming through. Then he felt the sour port in his mouth, and remembered he was in George's house.

"Damn," he thought. "Nerves."

He showered, put on his workaday camouflage uniform, He stepped into the hall. "This way," called Melanie. "George and I have breakfast all ready one the patio." Captain grinned a good morning. Melanie kissed him on the cheek, then led him to a well-set table surrounded by rose bushes on the vitrual patio

"Whoa," said George. "You must have been wearing a girdle under that mess kit. What happened to that skinny kid I used to know?"

Captain Dan grinned ruefully. "The Council of CEOs look after us pretty good in the field. Maybe a bit too good, I guess."   He grinned again, almost cheekily, and reached for a plateful of bacon and several eggs. As he did, a hand gently tapped him on the wrist.

"I think we need to have the Lord's blessing, first."

Captain Dan jumped up an embraced a tall man whose own gestures and style had a more practiced enthusiasm.

"I didn't even see, Revernd Tommy. It's been a long time."

"Indeed, it has been. I just wanted to drop iin for a moment before chapel. It's been a long time."

"Could you give me a few words to pass on to the boys at the front?"

That drew a smile of practiced vibrancy, followed by a look of depth tand sincerity. "Tell them they have the Lord's blessing and our gratitude. I t just goes to show - wouldn't his me a much better world if people were just nice to each other? Gotta rush to chapel. So long, Dan; and God bless all of our soldiers."

With that he left; and Captain Dan and George sat down again to breakfast.  It was a silent meal with a tension that Captain Dan sensed from his years of military service.

"Dan." George's voice was low, almost repentant. "We have to talk."

"Sure, George. There's lots to catch up on. What would you like to talk about?"

"Well....the fact is....I don't know what they're telling you....but the fact is we're running out of patriotic North Americans like you. If we're to hang on, we have to hire mercenaries to do the sort of work you're doing."

Captain Dan stared at George, then, "But they can't. What I do takes a lot of training. Mercenaries are okay for the foot work. But that's about it."

George nodded. "Exactly. We're going to have to train them. We have no choice. Soon, it will be them or nothing. I want you as my VP of armoured training."  He sat, quietly tense as he waited for a response. It took several seconds.

"I'm flattered, George. I really am. Bu but you know me. I'm a field man. I've always been out there where the action is.That's where I belong. Right in the action. I don't see myself in a suit."

George chuckled. You won't be in a suit. You'll be with the men you're training. You'll be taking each batch into the field with you until they get  - almost - as good as you are. Think about it. I need an answer in a week. Come on board, Dan. It'll be like old times." He clapped Captain Dan on the shoulder. Now, I see I need to get you to the airport. Let's go. The car is waiting. Take a week, Dan. Take a bit more if you have to. But please say yes. The Council of CEOs asked for you peronally. I know that because the President of the Council passed it on to me last night."

Just two hours later, Captain Dan strode to the tank park at the armoury in Arlington, Virginia. He climbed up a ladder, then down through a hatch into a tank. As he lowered himself to the commander's seat, he pulled the hatch shut.  A screen lit up in front of him.  He turned the camera, tracing a circle around the tank. He paused. There were his mercenaries, waving him on. He completed the cricle, kept going until he saw the mercenaries again, just by the jungle edge. Then the engine roared into life; and he And he watched the jungle come closer.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

what this is about.

I have two blogs. One is pretty local - the politics, journalism and education of the province of New Brunswick in Canada. To find it, it's easiest just to googe   The Moncton Times and Transcript- Good and Bad. (It's mostly bad.)

This one is far more general, and even vague - whatever is on my mind at the time. It might be a very short story. It might be something that struck me in Canadian or in world politics; (commenting on those daily was my job for some years.) Maybe to ease in, I'll just pass on a story.

Tonight, I found some old sheet music, among it a copy of “Mighty Lak a Rose.”
That brought back memories of Eve Stervinou. When I was a kid, Eve lived in our very working class district, and attended our church. And nobody thought anything of it.

Now, you have to understand that in our poverty we were proud of our respectability. We were as properly Victorian as the Victorians never were. Even the coarsest and crudest of us in our church had a respect for respectability. When I got the Sunday school prize for memorizing bible verses, Stanley, the kid who sat beside me and would grow up to become a muscle man for the mob, muttered, “You lucky buggar.” And no-one thought that an unreasonable comment.

But Eve was very different, by all our standards. There was no Mr. Stervinou. I don’t know whether there ever was. I never heard of one. Now, in our social setting, divorce was unspeakable and unthinkable. So, not to have a husband in the first place, and to have two daughters, was, well, it just didn’t happen. But there was Eve. And nobody thought anything of it.

She was regularly in church. There were no conspiratorial nudges or grins, no disapproval. She was a good friend of my very respectable parents who neither smoked nor drank and who sang in the choir. She regularly visited our flat, as we visited hers.

Oh, and she was a nightclub entertainer, too. Those were the glory days when Montreal nightclubs were world class, the days before TV when the nightclub was the only source of stage entertainment for the price of  a few beers. Montreal was a magnet for jazz musicians from all over North America. And the clubs, run in wide open style by the mobs who pretty well ran the whole city, and made sure every club had hookers and gambling 24/7. Even the cops could be found hanging out in the clubs after closing hours My parents wouldn't have dreamed of even looking at the door of a nightclub as they passed it. But they could also be perfectly respectable places for a woman. They were even necessary.

Nightclubs meant jobs for quite respectable women in a time when most jobs were closed to them.  Black women in Montreal, for example, could hope for nothing more than baby sitting or char work. The club was a way out. And so it was that the girls you saw dancing in the chorus on Saturday night were the same girls who sangin the choir of the Black church on Sunday morning.

It was that way for white women, too, who hadn't finished high school and had no secretarial training. So Eve worked in the clubs. Nobody questioned her respectability.

She was a whistler. They billed her as The Whistling Nightingale. It still meant she lived in poverty; but it was a poverty which was better than nothing at all.

By the time I was twelve, I could play most popular songs on the piano, so Eve would bring sheet music – like "Mighty Lak a Rose". I’d play; and everybody would gather around the piano; and we’d sing the opening verse; – and then Eve would whistle along with us in soaring harmony and tremolos.

We moved when I was fourteen, and I forgot Eve for the next fifty years. Then I heard she had married in New York, and her husband had died. I didn't know she had married. In fact, the one who died was her fifth husband. (I never found out who the other four were, either, or what happened to them.)

Eve, by then in her nineties and living in New York, decided the east coast was not for her. So she climbed into her old VW Beetle and drove, alone, to Los Angeles.

I heard no more. And thought no more. Until I found that old copy of “Mighty Lak a Rose”. I took it to the piano, sat down, struck the first chord.

And I’m sure I heard a whistle joining in.