Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Great Sixths

Note: This is part six of a continuing review of the greatest symphonies in western classical music.

When it comes to Great Sixth symphonies I must depart from my usual course of noting five worthy symphonic compositions and crowning one as the best of all. The quality of the Sixths blogged about here is such that the field of competition is considerably tighter and smaller. There are only three Great Sixths worthy of consideration. Placing any others in the companionship with these great works of art would be a slight to those selected.

The Sixths of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler far surpass any other consideration for this numerical category. Moreover, any one of these Great Sixths could be considered the best of all. It is literally a three-way tie in my mind.

So, let’s take them in chronological order with Beethoven being the oldest, composed in 1808. This was one of Beethoven’s few “program” symphonies, following a specific theme and was subtitled “Recollection of Country Life” at its premiere. That is a good summary of how this symphony feels. Eventually, the secondary title "Pastoral" became the primary reference for this composition.

The first movement is upbeat and cheerful, it even skips along for a bit. The listener can easily envision the undertaking of a journey out into a sunny, comfortable day. There are elements of excitement, contentment, freedom, and openness set in a natural landscape through the course of the movement. The opening is my favorite part of the symphony. This gives way to a more stately, contemplative second movement. In the program notes this movement was given the title “By the Brook.” The movement meanders along easily. Beethoven’s orchestration is, as always, incredibly rich and balanced between strings, winds, and horns, at times making use of solo instruments to mimic bird calls.

This is a truly classically constructed symphony, so the third movement is a scherzo. Here Beethoven works in the human element of country life. Not the working, agricultural aspects, however. That would not fit with the theme and tone of the work. Instead we have an examination of folk dancing and celebration. It is a fun movement to listen to and has a tendency to leave me humming the basic theme. A wonderful listening experience.

The fourth movement shifts gears quite a bit. This is Beethoven’s famous depiction of a thunderstorm. The storm comes upon the listener suddenly, proceeds into higher levels of violence before dissipating into far away cracks of thunder and, perhaps, a rainbow at the end of this comparatively short musical moment which extends without pause into the strong finale. The main theme is expressed again with nice variations threading the sections into a unified whole.

Beethoven’s Great Sixth is musically sophisticated yet not in any way complex. It is a relaxed, direct experience, simple to the extent that the country life it attempts to reflect is a simple way of life. This is in sharp contrast to the other two Great Sixths, however.

Tchaikovsky’s Sixth is his greatest symphonic accomplishment. Dubbed as the "Pathetique symphony, for me it is not so pitiable and morose as the title might have you believe. In Russian, the truer meaning is “passionate”. Certainly, the symphony has rather somber, bleak moments, which I find beautiful in their own way. But, more often I find it is intense throughout. It is widely thought that this symphony contains the frustrated musical musings of Tchaikovsky’s unconsummated love for his nephew Vladimir Davydov. Like any stillborn affair of genuine passion, this one deeply troubled the composer. His pain and melancholy is reflected in this Great symphony.

This melancholia is reflected immediately in the opening movement by a deep solo bassoon, slow and brooding, supported by bass strings. But, there are soon touches of lightness that gives way about five minutes in to a beautiful, enraptured theme, one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest musical moments. Being slightly over 20 minutes in length, this is one of the composer’s longest symphonic movements and he displays his deftness with a variety of explorations from soft to surprisingly abrupt to powerful to sublime. A very satisfying movement and the best part of the symphony.

The second movement begins with a delicate, waltz-like quality, contrastingly carefree when compared with the opening. Strings dominate the sweeping composition with steady percussion driving the movement forward, the early lightness becoming a bit heavier, though richer and with only the slightest hint of gloomy undercurrents. All-in-all this passage is very relaxing, which contrasts with the third movement. This one is purposeful, mostly a march, masterfully building to a victorious climax.

The fourth movement is a terrific finale to this great work. It begins with full orchestration, slowly expressing a theme tinged with what I find to be a sweet sadness. The solo bassoon returns again further in the movement, not to restate the original theme, but to transform it into a kind of substantial acceptance, perhaps even resignation though without becoming overly weighty. Like the entire symphony, this a very melodic movement with several rich and loud full orchestral build ups. That is, until we reach the final three minutes. Then the symphony suddenly transforms into a very introverted and reflective composition using various sections to gradually wind the momentum down to a crawl before the bass strings slowly fade into silence at the end.

Mahler’s Great Sixth, while complex, serious and ultimately “Tragic”, is not as introspective as Tchaikovsky’s. It is more metaphysical and symbolic, yet its intimate moments are just as passionate. It begins with a heavy, march-like rhythm that ultimately defines another of Mahler’s heroic struggles. The individual is pitted against the burden or the challenge, however you might wish to perceive it.

Mahler’s symphonies, as a rule, are rife with controversies but none more so than his Sixth. Mahler, a constant tinkerer and revisionist of his own work, was particularly unsettled about this symphony. For one thing he could not definitively decide whether his Scherzo movement should be performed second, before the Andante movement, or after it. In its earliest performances what is today the second and third movements were reversed. Though the Andante is commonly performed as the third movement these days, it is unclear as to whether this was the composer’s ultimate intent. He waffled on the matter.

Moreover, in the magnificent finale, Mahler originally placed three great “hammer blows” in the composition. The hero overcomes all obstacles being struck by a violent blow only to rise again, to overcome, and then be struck again. The hero finally succumbs to the third blow, the great “tragedy” at the end of the symphony.

But wait, Mahler later changed his mind. He thought the third blow was too much and was unnecessary. So he reworked the last part of the movement to reflect only two hammer blows. In fact, the official score is written this way, there is no “official” third hammer blow. But, many conductors believe Mahler’s original intent is a better reflection of what he meant for his symphony. Personally, I prefer the third and final blow. It makes more sense to me.

Beyond this, Mahler never specified what instrument the hammer blow was actually supposed to be performed with. He had a special drum made for the premiere of the symphony but he was dissatisfied with it. Benjamin Zander, whose interpretation of this symphony I like best, uses a large lead pipe and a wooden packing crate. It gives quite a startling effect when you hear his recording of this great work.

Controversies aside, Mahler’s Sixth is a 80 minute masterpiece composed in 1903-1904. The first movement sets the tone for the great struggle that unfolds with a driving force that is accented wonderfully by a beautiful, lyrical passage which Mahler touchingly wrote for new wife Alma. The second movement (or the third if things are reversed) rides right on the heels of the first. It is forceful, striving, before allowing itself to be transformed into several slower more melodic passages.

The Andante is probably my personal favorite of anything Mahler ever composed. It is touching, slow yet intense, lovingly nurturing without being overly sentimental. It builds nicely into a strong, sweet string section supported by equally powerful horns. It makes a wonderful use of cowbells to signify its grounded quality while nevertheless attempting to soar. Its major theme is stated twice, the second time far more intense and commanding, with a host of layers, than the first. It is the best example of how Mahler can be so acutely romantic yet never become self-indulgent or sappy.

The final movement with its hammer blows is a wonder. Here there is repeated struggle, twice triumphant, yet, whether the final hammer blow is performed or not, Mahler chose to conclude the symphony in resignation. It is these final 3-4 minutes of the symphony that gives it a truly tragic quality. Had he chosen to be slightly more elevated at the end the symphony would have ended on a heroic high like his Great First. But, instead, Mahler chose to rival Tchaikovsky’s resignation. The symphony fades, suggesting the hero is overwhelmed.

As I mentioned before, any of these three symphonies could be labeled the best of breed for Great Sixths. Though the Tchaikovsky and Mahler compositions are ultimately disheartening that does not lessen their achievement as symphonies worthy of repeated exposures. There is much to appreciate and even inspire in each of them. The Beethoven work is far more positive. It is much simpler in what it accomplishes and is an easy, superb classical experience because of it.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Economist: Glimpses of McChrystal's War

I subscribe to and read just two periodicals with regularity. They are both among the oldest magazines published in the world. One is the left-leaning The Atlantic which began publication in Boston in 1857. The other is more centrist, The Economist, published out of London since 1843. The Economist is a weekly, always chocked full of so much excellent news writing that I never read an entire issue. There's just not enough time before the next one arrives.

I was particularly interested in the latest issue of The Economist over the weekend. It features an excellent cover story on the overall situation in Afghanistan. The focus of the article is not the dismissal of General McChrystal, though that certainly is a strong thread running throughout. It attempts, rather, to summarize the situation in Afghanistan from both a geo-political and strategic military perspective. I read the article rather discriminately, however, trying to see if it revealed exactly what McChrystal was up to in his final days of command in Afghanistan.

The media so far has focused on the general’s poor judgment in the context of the Rolling Stone debacle that led to his recent dismissal. It has also focused on how there is (apparently) no clear agreement on strategy for the war and on the perception that little progress was being made by McChrystal. So was the hot-shot general sitting on his thumbs over there? That’s not the impression I got from the Rolling Stone article itself. Indeed, there are more specifics on McChrystal's productivity mentioned in The Economist, a far superior journalistic endeavor to what Michael Hastings infamously reported for Rolling Stone.

The pieces of the article mentioning McChrystal and what his team was setting up in Afghanistan before his dismissal make it clear enough that McChrystal, at least, was pursuing a very specific “southern strategy” for Afghanistan. There doesn’t seem to be much disagreement among the military on what should be done in terms of operations there. Now, whether it will work or not is another question, of course.

But, the main point here is that McChrystal was active, hands-on and implementing an operational approach to the war prior to his demise by Rolling Stone. Here are some quotes from The Economist to illustrate.

McChrystal was setting up a major campaign in the south to be completed by 2011. “He minced no words in telling them ‘what would cause us to lose.’ And in a long interview, not short of self-criticism and uncertainty, he issued a daunting to-do list by the end of the year for southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s heartland. ‘I think I’ll need to be able to say there’s clear progress, and in some places irreversible progress, in the Helmand river valley and hopefully Kandahar,’ he said.”

McChrystal’s operations were of McChrystal’s making. “But in Afghanistan General McChrystal will be much missed. With support from Mr Obama, who inherited (and publicly embraced) a losing cause from his predecessor, General McChrystal first rewrote the campaign plan. The effect was to refine the haphazard counter-insurgency efforts of his predecessors, who include Mr Eikenberry: for example, by replacing a forlorn hope of controlling all Afghanistan with a serious bid to secure the densely populated reaches of the south.

“This is still a daunting ambition. Kandahar and Helmand are the heartland of an insurgency that affects most of southern and eastern Afghanistan and an increasing portion of the north and west. A recent American survey of 120 insurgency-stricken districts (around a third of all districts) found that only a quarter of the population supported the government, and that over a third were sympathetic towards, or openly supported, the insurgents. To beat back the insurgency, the American troops now being deployed to the south will have to bring both security and a massive change of heart. This effort, concentrated in a summer offensive in Kandahar, is likely to determine the success of what is now General Petraeus’s mission.”

Just as he did in Iraq (see previous post), McChrystal was surgically eliminating key enemy leaders, effectively taking out their command and control infrastructure. “The coalition—a 46-nation mélange dominated by America, which will soon have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan—is meanwhile killing as many Taliban leaders as it can. American, British and other special-force soldiers are conducting over a dozen operations a night for this purpose—including one last month that accounted for Mullah Zergay, the Taliban ‘shadow’ governor of Kandahar. This is part of a wider NATO effort to use violence more discriminately, in particular by limiting the aerial bombing that has killed hundreds of Afghan civilians.”

A report on this operation can be found here. I might add there little to be found on this in the US media.

Perhaps such lack of objective military coverage while instead emphasising the political in-fighting among Obama-appointed officials is a key reason why the idea that “no progress” is being made in Afghanistan seems so legitimate. US journalists seem to approach the whole situation with Vietnam in the back of their minds, blurring their vision.

The strategy currently being implemented by US troops is exactly the same approach McChrystal applied in Iraq. Maybe there are sound reasons why what worked in Iraq won’t work in Afghanistan but I have yet to read any analysis that justifies such a contention. Meanwhile, the fact remains that McChrystal was, once again, kicking ass in southern Afghanistan.

The on-going special forces campaign is proceeding outside the periphery of the news cycle while coalition forces are also attempting to build rapport with the tribal leaders in the region. Most likely the campaign is a prerequisite for more traditional military operations later in the summer. (Perhaps the mainstream US media will pick up on the “big push” when it occurs.) Essentially, the idea seems to be to begin the delayed campaign after the special forces have maximized Taliban disorganization; but, according to the US media, the delay of the Kandahar operation is due to the alleged fact that no one is sure what our mission is there. Well, The Economist article at least makes it clear that McChrystal and his staff knew. My guess is that General Petraeus is pretty clear about it as well.

Meanwhile, the operation taking out Taliban leadership one or two at a time continues.

McChrystal was changing the nature of the war in Afghanistan, something that cannot happen quickly. A big part of that is the cultural aspects of McChrystal’s counter-insurgency approach. “In a well publicised assault in February on Marja, a Taliban-administered segment of the fertile and crowded Helmand river valley west of Kandahar, American troops took pains to get enemy wounded to hospital. Aid workers in Afghanistan, who have long been scornful of American blundering there, are full of praise for these measures. One senior figure describes the McChrystal makeover as ‘a change in military culture’.”

The Obama July 2011 deadline (which might best serve Obama’s own re-election cycle and which I criticized in an earlier post) was certainly a source of frustration for McChrystal. “There is almost no chance that Afghanistan will be transformed by the time of Mr Obama’s deadline. The insurgency is too robust. The government is too weak. Too much time has been lost. According to a senior NATO official, it takes on average 13 years to win a counter-insurgency campaign; and this campaign is, in effect, in year two.

“If General McChrystal’s plan is to be given a fair trial, the promised American withdrawal will therefore have to be remarkably gradual.”

These glimpses of McChrystal’s thinking and implementation obviously does not persuade The Economist that the war is being won. Far from it. “There is even less good news in nearby Marja. Before launching an airborne assault there in February, General McChrystal earmarked it as a testing-ground for his strategy. Once security was established there, he predicted, a ‘government-in-a-box’ could be swiftly unpacked in the town, delighting its 60,000 inhabitants. But American forces in Marja are now under nightly attack, locals have been beheaded by the Taliban for co-operating with them, and there is little government in evidence.”

The Economist points out that McChrystal has made some mistakes. Not the least of which has been with the implementation of his attempts to transform cultural impressions of the coalition through economic assistance. “At a meeting in Kandahar to discuss the unwanted effects of NATO contracts, General McChrystal was informed that 570 of them, worth millions of dollars, had been issued from NATO’s airbase in Kandahar, and nobody was quite sure to whom. The general consoled his aides: ‘We were in a hurry, we were ignorant, we created a business environment, and now it’s come back to hurt us.’”

By all accounts, McChrystal never made excuses, always took responsibility and knew the outcome of his best laid plans was without guarantees.

The Economist soberly concludes the article: “The situation is grim. To stand even a moderate chance of success, General McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy would require more time than American and European governments are prepared to give it. Instead, NATO countries, perhaps including a reluctant America, are increasingly concluding that there will have to be a negotiated end to the war. But the Taliban are in no rush to talk. Their position is strong. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for NATO’s current operations is to weaken the militants sufficiently to bring them to the table. That near-impossible task now falls to the impressive, persistent, but human General Petraeus.”

McChrystal is out but his policies and strategies are still in place. The important special forces component of his operational strategy is in the hands of various lower-level commanders who know what they are doing. Petraeus inherits a pretty good hand from the sound of things, even though things still look “grim” from The Economist’s perspective. Certainly, McChrystal’s strategy is no slam dunk. As The Economist points out, McChrystal himself was plagued by uncertainty at times.

Nevertheless, the idea that no progress was being made does not strike me as objective. To be sure, Petraeus faces a daunting task. But, he assumes command over a living strategy being effectively executed. Whether the political winds of the Obama administration or the indigenous tribal dynamics of the region allow the strategy to work was a gamble from the start.

Late Note: The Christian Science Monitor reported on the day after this post that according to an ISAF spokeman: "...about 130 'Taliban commanders and subcommanders' have been captured or killed in the past four months throughout the country, mostly in the south, the heartland of the Taliban." The article goes on to explain why General McChrystal's controversial rules of engagement, which are designed to restrain US and coalition use of force, particularly air strikes, were put into place to begin with. The article gives specific examples of how McChrystal's rules of engagement are integrating Afghan forces into the war effort and minimizing Afghan casualties - the number one recruitment tool of the Taliban is 'collateral damage' of Afghan women and children in coalition use of force. It will be interesting to see how much of this kind of stuff General Petraeus actually changes as he obtains a clearer perspective of the situation.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Right and Wrong in Afghanistan

The war is in its ninth year now. The recent dismissal of General McChrystal still bothers me. So, I have been reflecting a lot about our involvement in that country over the past couple of days. Specifically, on where I see our mistakes and opportunities, things we have done right and wrong.

Right. Going in. There is no question President Bush acted appropriately by sending US troops in response to
the Taliban’s open distain for the US by proclaiming themselves a safe-haven for al-Qaeda following Osama bin Ladin’s orchestrated attacks on September 11, 2001.

Wrong. Invading Iraq. Equally, there is no question that Bush’s “Captain Ahab” to Saddam Hussein as “Moby Dick” hurt us in Afghanistan. First of all,
the invasion of Iraq was unwarranted, it was based completely on fabrication, bordering on dereliction of duty as commander-in-chief. It was a personal vendetta of Bush against Hussein, an abuse of power. Secondly, it obviously took every priority over Afghanistan, which took our eye off the ball. Al-Qaeda took advantage of Iraq to misdirect the application of American force while slowly rebuilding their position.

Right. President Obama has
refocused our priorities back to where they should have always been – in Afghanistan. The de-escalation of Iraq and the build-up in Afghanistan was not only appropriate, it was necessary. Unfortunately, the situation in Afghanistan is now more problematic with a resurgent Taliban and a weak “domestic partner” in President Karzai. The original objectives of our mission in response to the September 11 attacks are virtually forgotten. This is both a consequence of our Iraqi occupation and the simple fact that Americans don’t like protracted wars. Our own weak willpower over time numbs us to the motivating force of the World Trade Center being destroyed, killing and injuring thousands of innocent civilians.

Dismissing General McChrystal. This is a highly contrarian view, I know. Just as we took our eye off the ball with the Iraq occupation, we have allowed a public relations nightmare to take precedence over winning a war. It is a ridiculous situation and shows, once more, how weak and confused Americans can become about what is more important – the seemingly sacred display of showy professionalism or kicking the enemy’s ass.

Obama has removed from command the general who spearheaded (despite the fact that we should have never been in this situation to begin with) the capture of Saddam Hussein, killed al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, as well as – in 2007 – killing and capturing dozens of other important al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq. In effect, the special forces leadership of General McChrystal put al-Qaeda out of business in Iraq. But, instead of benefitting from that
proven track record in the “real” war in Afghanistan, Obama sent him packing on an issue of professional decorum. That is one screwed up sense of priorities. The fact that most Americans can not see that only shows how lost we are as a culture, whether the war is lost or not.

Right or wrong?
Enter General Petraeus. Obviously, Petraeus has the credentials to lead. He turned the war around in Iraq. McChrystal, however, was Petraeus’ hand-picked man in Iraq. McChrystal’s covert experience, solid leadership skills, ability to galvanize rapport with both Afghanistan’s political hodge-podge and our soldiers serving in-country, understanding of the situation on the ground, and – bluntly – his “take no prisoners” cut-throat nature is exactly what we need in Afghanistan. Certainly, in terms of strict professionalism McChrystal can’t hold a candle to Petraeus. But, our enemy is not professional. They are a ruthless rabble with boundless élan.

David Petraeus is an astute practitioner of modern military art but I don't think he is an ass-kicker.

Politically, it was next to impossible for Obama to leave the general in command after the Rolling Stone article. Yet, at the same time, the fact remains that Obama allowed a magazine to dictate his war effort. That does not bode well for the future in my opinion. It is a reflection on our own superficial nature as a people. There might well be a comparable price to pay for this. Often, the most vivid test of leadership is to do the unpopular.

Keeping McChrystal would have cost Obama dearly at a time when he has cashed in his political chips on a pointless
economic stimulus and health care reform. The president is bogged down in a bad economy and major environmental disaster in the Gulf. The McChrystal article unfortunately arrived during “the perfect storm” so he was dismissed, much to the glee of Islamic extremists. One measure of how sound a decision is by the way the enemy responds to it.

We will get what we ask for as a weak consumerist society of convenience. Our leadership will appear more professional but
there are serious rifts. The underlying McChrystal frustration was not based on a fairy tale. We are a society where reality TV means that we no longer watch television, it watches us. And where journalists no longer report the news, they make it. The McChrystal story was basically nothing more than a report about private jokes made by staffers reflecting frustration. In that sense the media of our society has become the worst joke of all. Hastings chose to elevate the common, flip attitude of precision military killers over and above the importance of the mission they were setting up. Hastings reported the trivial at the expense of the critical.

There is a lot of blood here on a lot of different levels, physical to poltical to practically philosophical. And most of it is on Michael Hastings hands.

How much more screwed up can things get than that? McCrystal is a killing general and he takes out what he wants to one piece at a time. Hussein,
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a few more, then dozens at a time. At the same time you endear yourself to their cultures as much as possible. That is how you deal with the terrorism. This is why McChrystal could not tolerate Biden's view of counterinsurgency.

Who knows? We might get to see how
Joe's way would work yet.

Sitting on our porch in the dark, listening to tonight's sounds, Jennifer summarized the situation well after we discussed it. "It's all about how good you look." Amen to that. And too bad.

Late Note: This article appeared the next day, after this post.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Runaway Hyperbole

I understand why Obama had to let McChrystal go. It was politically impossible to keep him. But, come on. The president said that the contents of the infamous Rolling Stone article: "undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system." All the pundits agree. Universal acclaim. It was the right move.

Had it not been for an Iceland volcano
this might not have happened. Thank god Michael Hastings got grounded with McChrystal long enough to uncover this massive threat to civilian control of the military. My god, think what might have happened if McChrystal and his staff had continued to pursue the war.

But, wait a minute. At what point was the Obama administration's military policy actually threatened by the article? Does Obama really think the lofty aim of "civilian control" was jeopardized by McChrystal's staffers making routine jokes about the administration? (
Read the article. These guys joked that way about everything. They called themselves "COINdinistas" for example. Joking and slander doesn't make anyone less professional about the mission.) Seems disingenuous.

This isn't Truman vs. MacArthur. McChrystal wasn't out there publicly criticizing the president's policy as MacArthur specifically did with Truman. It needs to be stressed that at no time during the period covered by the Rolling Stone reporter did General McChrystal say anything critical about the conduct of the war in Afghanistan.

Now, of course, civilian control was undermined among fellow civilians (ie. politicians). But, I hardly think a free press and free expression threatens Obama's policy in Afghanistan. Or maybe things really are that fragile.

Let's take the article blow by blow. McChrystal complains about having to go to dinner with a French official. He shoots his chief-of-staff a bird (I think this is kind of noteworthy because it begins to give McChrystal's speech acts context, which Hastings does everything he can to obscure in the actual reporting of events). McChrystal hates all things French. He's a simple guy. He states he'd rather have his "ass kicked" than go to dinner with the French politician. Then, he tells his entire staff that "Unfortunately, no one in this room can do it" (meaning kick his ass). Then he leaves. Does anyone really think McChrystal is being disrespectful of his own staff? Again, context.

One of his staffers tells Hastings that he's going out to dinner with the French politician. "It's fu#king gay," the staffer says. This is the normal tone of conversation at this level. It is nothing personal, McChrystal and his staff don't respect politicians. (Neither do the American people that elect them - or apathetically watch other Americans elect them.)

Then the article points out that McChrystal publicly disagreed with vice-president Biden's Afghan policy of counterterrorism - in 2009 in London (before he took over command). Hardly news to anyone. While preparing for a speech in 2010, McChrystal jokes with his staff about hypothetical questions at the day's press conference. "Are you asking about Vice President Biden?" McChrystal says with a laugh. "Who's that?" To which a staffer adds,"Biden? Did you say: Bite Me?"

Seems obvious enough to me that civilian leadership has lost control of policy in Afghanistan. Right. That's pure Obama hyperbole. No need to be so lofty Mr. President, nor so tissue-thin skinned.

The article goes on to highlight how little McChrystal and Obama connected in their first meeting, even though the general voted for the president. A McChrystal advisor is quoted as saying "The Boss" (isn't that what they called Stalin?) was non-plussed by Obama. The president probably should have fired him right then before he threatened theft of civilian control of the military.

The article then rambles through a series of meetings and interviews that occurred when McChrystal was getting what he wanted from the Obama administration to fight the war in Afghanistan. It is the usual litany of how this will never work. The whole approach to Afghanistan is wrong and doomed to failure. It seems Hastings is suggesting that McChrystal's attitude toward the administration was formed as a result of getting what he wanted. But, of course, that would somewhat indict the reporter rather than the report. Not fashionable today for sure.

According to Hastings, when McChrystal arrived in Afghanistan to begin his mission his staffers joked that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as western forces are collectively known, stood for "I Suck at Fighting" or "In Sandals and Flip-Flops." Was it at this point civilians lost control of the military, Mr. President? Last year?

Once again, context. These guys were flip and joked about everything (here's a news flash...they still do), not just the touchy Obama Administration. It is part of their build and it is obvious in the article as whole, though the article as a whole didn't get Stanley McChrystal fired today, did it?

The article then points out that it is McChrystal, not he president's appointed ambassador nor the administration's private advisor (layers of bureaucrats to protect our civilian control of the military no doubt), who formed the best relationship with Afghan President Karzai (a critical component to the strategy). In fact, the president's men were publicly quoted, without consulting McChrystal according to the article, that the whole policy couldn't work with Karzai in power. Perhaps it was at this point that McChrystal thought of taking over the war on his own accord since the "division" Obama preached against in dismissing McChrystal today was coming mostly from his own political appointments, not the military.

After a brief history of how McChrystal got to where he is (or was, sorry) in military power (which glosses over his valuable contributions in Iraq) there are a couple of quotes from military guys who hate McChrystal because they think he puts troops unnecessarily at risk. But, of course, such criticism of a (then) acting commander is a routine part of the speech acts in the public sphere. Somehow the shit only rolls one way, right?

Then we get McChrystal reviewing the troops and learning first-hand that they think we are losing the war. This, before Hastings blasts McChrystal's approach to the war, concluding that: "So far, counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war. There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word "victory" when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge."

Not everyone agrees with this assessment.

Well now all that is in the capable hands of David Petraeus. Presumably safeguarding the "core of our democratic system" by protecting us from Ramboesque renegades like McChrystal.

I have no idea what strategy will work in Afghanistan. I have a good guess that more damage has been done to our cause by Obama's stupid statement last December about withdrawing troops in July 2011 than by anything Hastings was able to catch and spin on McChrystal. Basic military tenet: Don't tell the enemy when you plan to leave. They will just wait you out.

As I said, I understand Obama had to fire the General. But, best I can tell, it was for all the wrong reasons.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Within a Quiet Cove

Jennifer snapped this pic of me headed out of our little cove into Lake Seed.

Last week we took vacation. Jennifer found this great cabin in the north Georgia foothills along Lake Seed. Lake Seed is a small, snakecular waterway along what used to be the Tallulah River fed by Lake Burton, the more popular getaway. But Lake Seed was perfect, a great vacation spot.

The first two nights Jennifer’s parents joined us. Fred got to fish with the girls and joined me in the evenings for gin and tonics with my Bombay Sapphire. But they left early Thursday, a couple of hours before my parents arrived, spent the day and had lunch at the boat house before sweeping my daughter and her cousin (who had joined us on the trip up) back to the swimming pool, golf cart rides (and, most importantly, cellular coverage) of their house while Jennifer and I got the last night and following day alone up there.

It was very nice.

This was Charlie’s first vacation trip with us. Parks had gone in the past. Nala never goes. Charlie did well though there were a couple of very willful moments when he ventured beyond our control. Approaching the people down at the public boat ramp, near the highway, with a car coming in the opposite direction. But, he came back. And Jennifer leashed him until he got to the boat house. Charlie hates the heat of day and sought every shade he could lay in, preferring the cabin a/c to the boat house, but suffering through it with us anyway.

I got up early each morning, making coffee except for Wednesday morning when Jennifer’s mom beat me up. She and I chatted briefly over a first cup while everyone else slept. Then I went out to the boat house. The cabin was located on the opposite side of the road from the lake. You had to cross the highway to get to the boat house.

The fact the cabin was not directly on the lake might have been a negative for some people. But, for us it was a plus. There was a wonderful cold, clear spring fed mountain creek running from behind and along side our cabin down to where it emptied into the lake from under the curve in the road where we walked down to the boat house. The creek cascaded down in numerous small waterfalls and sounded so tranquil. The cabin had the creek all to itself. There was a great view of the waterfalls from the window at the kitchen sink. So, near the cabin we had this deep mountain effect while across the road there was the private cove effect. Perfect really.

A typical waterfall in the creek alongside our cabin. I waded here several times in the hot sun. It was a little over shin deep here.

In our immediate vicinity our cove opened into Lake Seed and occasionally boats or ski jets would pass through. But, far more often (being the middle of the work week) we had the cove to ourselves. There was a public ramp in our cove but few boats put in or pulled out there. In the half dozen or so boat houses and cabins in our view there was no human sound. They were empty. Thus, our space was largely private.

My daughter and her cousin enjoyed the paddle boating and tanning in the sun. As I mentioned, they fished one afternoon with Jennifer’s dad. They swam near the dock a good bit and went out with me in the canoe a couple of times. There was a rap station in semi-static constantly going on the radio at the dock. They stayed up late watching movies and giggling. They slept until almost noon each day and complained a bit that we didn’t have cell coverage at the cabin.

When Jennifer went into the local town for groceries one afternoon they were anxious to go along just so they could text on their phones. We had our laptop and there was an internet connection at the cabin. This enabled Jennifer and I to stay in casual touch with work situations and emails, which was enough for me. But, for the girls, it was too primitive after a few days.

Sometimes my daughter thinks her parents are Neanderthals.

There were many highlights during the trip. None was more special than getting out in the canoe in early morning just as the sun hit the tops of the trees in the cove. The water was cool, still and misty. One morning Jennifer joined me but usually I got to go out alone and drift quietly in the middle of the lake. Birds were in abundance but otherwise it was peaceful. Occasionally, an unseen plop in the water suggested some fish momentarily surfacing nearby.

We snacked and ate the whole time, of course. Jennifer whipped together a wicked banana pudding that didn’t last very long. Two bowls of it sufficed as my dinner one night.

I took a nap after lunch every day. During the heat of the afternoons I read either under the ceiling fans of the boat house or in the spacious, rustic, wood paneled living room of the cabin until about beer-thirty when it was time for gin and tonics with more snacking. Sometimes I went wading in the creek, the icy cold water a nice contrast with the hot sun.

Another highlight was the frog sounds at night out at the boat house. I counted 6-8 different kinds of frogs. A whippoorwill joined in. Evening was a special time out on the lake. The light slowly faded, shifting the colors toward reds then darker blues. The transition between bird sounds to frogs was special and contemplative.

On the promenade of the boat house, high above the level of the lake, feeling tan from being in the sun that day, I saw Mars shining over head, one of the first lights in the night sky you can see in clear air in twilight. It isn’t dark yet and still its brilliance proclaims itself. Seeing Mars and hearing the whippoorwill, distance, nearness, feeling the space of all things.

Our boat house in early morning, the lake misty and still.

While at Lake Seed we saw a lot of wildlife. Turkeys visited the cabin. What was probably a groundhog (we could not get close enough to tell for certain) enjoyed eating the plentiful clover in the back yard by the creek. Of course we saw a lot of brim in the water and several trout. The brim nested in the shallows all around the boat house.

Turkeys on the edge of the woods near our cabin.

By Friday afternoon, there was a considerable up tick in the level of activity on the lake. Time to pack up and get back home to catch the sunset and watch the Braves beat the Royals after taking two out of three from the Tampa Bay Rays, who possessed baseball’s best record at the time. Jennifer and I toasted the win from our front porch following the two and a half hour drive back. We listened to the first katydids in our woods for this summer. I read some more and went to sleep after midnight. Thoughts drifting.

I am in the canoe. I am in the middle of a lake that snakes through a former valley. Flooded about 75 feet higher out where the river once flowed, the deep artery of this strong tributary out of Lake Burton.

A light breeze is blowing on the flatness of the lake. There is a natural rhythm. The canoe is circling, turning quietly. I hear birds in the tree line to my south, the tree line opposite my cabin by maybe ¾ quarters of a mile of open space. Lots of birds out in those woods. The sky is bright and cloudless, the sun is rising but it only hits the top of the tree line to my south. I watch the color.

There is a plop of water now and then. Sometimes the plop is a trout coming to the surface and checking out a fallen leave or stick still floating, like me above the old river. Meandering along.

This is vacation. I look back to the north and see my boat house, over five minutes rowing back. I near the south shore. There is a lot of mountain laurel either blooming or just past its peak of blooms. Jennifer’s mother told me during coffee one morning that it was past the peak. Whatever. They accent the mountain stream around my cabin so well. I close my eyes. The water softly splats against the lightly rocking canoe. It is a glorious day.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A bourbon won that wasn't a bourbon

Argh. Set us up another round barkeep, by argh.

Jennifer and I hosted the Cumberland Island Armadillos here at Freebird yesterday for BBQ and assorted sides. As usual there were a variety of tasty hors d'œuvres proceeding an eclectic meal with the superb pulled pork and smoked chicken BBQ being complemented by a large array of salads made of pasta, veggies and cranberries, asparagus and other greens, shredded fresh beets and carrots (surprisingly tasty), assorted fruit, and - much later - topped with apple pie.

The festivities started about mid-afternoon on a blistering hot and humid day that kept most of us indoors in the a/c and under the ceiling fans watching the
USA tie England in World Cup play until closer to sunset. Afterwards we listened to tunes on the stereo system with Clint ultimately coming through with some great new age stuff that he channeled through his Pandora account, but that was much later in the evening.

As with most 'Dillo gatherings, there were plenty of dogs. 'Dillos are by nature dog lovers and we had four canine friends join Nala and Charlie for the weekend. Nala was not impressed but Charlie thought they were fun.

After we feasted everyone retired to the comparably cool twilight air and awaited the nightly firefly display that we get here this time of year. The spontaneous rising and flashing of hundreds of lightning bugs in our open lawn areas was well-received by the 'Dillos, who have seen this sort of thing before on camping trips but never at our place. Jennifer and I are quite accustomed to its splendor...yet we certainly don't take it for granted.

As the firefly show proceeded, we talked about Venus shining brightly high in the early evening sky. Clint took the opportunity to show us this incredible app he has for his Droid phone. It shows the stars, planets, and constellations in the evening sky, real-time, based on your current GPS reading. The neat thing is the sky shifts through the display as you tilt and pan and turn the phone itself. So, you not only see what is in the sky within your field of view but you can see through the earth (in our case) to what is in the southern hemisphere sky just by pointing it down to your feet. What a great tool for us astronomy geeks. Definitely the technological highlight of the evening for me.

Brian and I talked a little economics and he explained to me the thought processes behind why the the western countries gradually went off the gold standard for their currencies. It was fascinating stuff for me because I had never really understood the rationale behind it. Nevertheless, I advanced to him why I thought it was a mistake as basing everything on
fiat money only jeopardizes the value of everything in the long run. No fiat currency in history has ever survived.

Mark and I kept up with
the Braves beating the Twins in an inter-league game. They won last night's game on a classic squeeze play called for by Bobby Cox. They don't squeeze much in American League-style play so Bobby caught the Twins on their heels, which was a beautiful thing. Mark and I both like Bobby as a manager and are enjoying his wisdom in the last year of his career. We toasted the bunt and the win.

We all got to enjoy Clint's and Mark's recent pics from their backpacking trip last weekend to
Shining Rock in North Carolina. I cued up my 1930's mix of music as we all gathered in the living room to watch the slide show on our HDTV. There were some spectacular natural shots, both close-ups and panoramas, as well as some nice kaleidoscope effects shots Clint did with his camera. Clint always has an eye for the world in multiple dimensions.

Towards midnight (or thereabouts) five of us volunteered for a blind bourbon tasting, which has become a quasi-tradition for 'Dillo gatherings at our house. Diane was kind enough to line up five different bourbons that everyone had brought while Jeffery, Will, Mark, Jennifer (of course), and myself tasted and retasted in search of the best of the breed.

Everyone rather promptly disposed of bourbon "B" in the lineup. Turns out that was the "standard"
Jack Daniels. A bit of a surprise. It then came down to a contest between two that each of us preferred. Though it was a different two for each us there seemed to be a consensus about one - everybody was comparing that one to one of the other three.

In the end, the five of us universally went with substance in shot glass "D" as having the most flavor/smoothness combination. That turned out to be a barley whiskey, not a bourbon at all. We chose a whiskey that had no corn it and called it a bourbon. Blasphemy.

So, the taste test wasn't comparing apples to apples, but no one seemed to care anymore by that point. We were all smiling. The surprise winner was
Colorado Whiskey, though - for me and Jeffery - the smoothness of Gentleman Jack was a close second. Knob Creek and Bulleit were also-rans and the close seconds of other tasters.

Will seemed a bit disappointed. It was true that "cleansing the pallet" between taste tests was a bit, shall we say, low-key. Nevertheless, there was true agreement between all five tasters as to which was best. So, I take unanimity to be worthy of importance.

I arose early the next morning and made the first pot of strong coffee. Jean was up and we sat and talked about our respective work situations, challenges and frustrations. She is in accounting for the state and is now attempting to do the work of 40 people with 30 who are furloughed now and then making for even more work with less pay. We discussed the many downsides of our consumerist culture. She shared with me a bit about her continuing growth in her
Tai Chi practice. We talked of the importance of a sense of community and of new communities she was experiencing in her life.

Clint setup a tent in our front yard a good ways away from the house. He talked about enjoying laying there waking up and listening to all the early morning bird chatter and sunlight first hit his tent. Later, I helped him take things down in a sweltering sun. Very sweaty conditions.

About 11 a.m. another 'Dillo feeding frenzy ensued. A brunch consisting of two kinds of scrambled eggs (one mixed with chucks of salmon), sausages, tiny pancakes with maple syrup, some killer (literally) hash browns, strawberries congealed with angel food cake, and other assorted fruits. Much of the meal was whipped together by Eileen using some new recipes she had been wanting to try out. A great first effort on all of them from my perspective.

Ted joined us for brunch. He is busy working for the Census Bureau and couldn't stay that long. It was good to see him. Armadillos have to make contact whenever they can. Otherwise years might pass between sightings.

Afterwards, the group was rather lethargic, sitting in the shade of our carport outside, enjoying a nice breeze, though it was another hot and humid day. A garden tour was a must and Jennifer was happy to oblige.

By mid-afternoon everyone was ready to go back to Atlanta or the mountains or other ports of call. Lots of hugs and kisses, well-wishes for a safe trip, guys and girls and dogs alike. Until we meet again in a few weeks at Swan Cabin.

Looking forward to a future Now not too far away.

Late-Note: The Braves are finishing a long 11-game road trip by taking two out of three from the very good Minnesota Twins ballclub. The series itself was outstanding for Atlanta, even the loss. Going 6-5 on the trip is a good sign, I think.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Epilogue: War & Peace

Last month I finished rereading Leo Tolstoy’s great novel War & Peace. I started it as bedtime reading (although the novel is well over 1400 pages long, the chapters are all very short), which eventually evolved into more intensive reading secessions as my schedule permitted. It was great to reacquaint myself with this classic work of literature.

I read it the first time back in the 1980’s before I went to India. It was part of my spiritual quest. I was reading everything remotely truth-seeking at the time. My initial reading was with just that intent, to find all the heady things the novel had to say of a spiritual or philosophic nature. As I have all my life, I underlined the most interesting parts.

The paperback I just finished is one and the same, with all the markings that I had made back in my 20’s. This trip through the now yellowing pages, however, was more for the entertainment value of the work. The story is incredible, the multitude of characters are vividly presented. Tolstoy crafts the work so that it expresses a lot of action, dramatic empathy, and even a good dose of humor as the complex telling unfolds.

Right after Christmas last year, I purchased a DVD set of the old BBC version of the story that I had watched when I was still in high school on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. That series served as my introduction to Tolstoy and, by coincidence, (and a quick aside) to the terrific acting abilities of Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins has been one of my favorite actors ever since.

Anyway, re-watching the BBC series inspired me to read the book again, eventually causing me to read ahead, and then pause to allow the 20-episode televised dramatization to catch up, making note of what was left out or slightly changed for the TV version. Overall, the BBC rendering stayed true to all the primary points of the novel, though – as usual in such cases - the novel is superior to its abbreviated 15-hour TV form.

With the passage of almost 30 years since my first reading, I had the joy of experiencing the story anew, as if for the first time (a nod to T.S. Elliot). Before rereading, I hardly remembered anything about it beyond vague notions of the characters of Pierre and Natasha, the Battle of Borodino, and Napoleon’s considerable supporting role in the plot.

Though I primarily enjoyed the book as entertainment, I was particularly impressed with how Tolstoy ended his work, which was both totally unexpected and brought me back around to its more philosophical aspects.

I had forgotten most of the Epilogue, which begins in my old paperback on page 1351 and runs on until 1455, the last page. The story concludes with Pierre and Natasha talking about how wrong it is for everyone to say the best years of a marriage are at the beginning. The characters agree that marriage becomes more wonderful, more intimate (though certainly at times challenging) the longer the couple remains together. This happy moment segues into a dream by a adolescent child of a now deceased major character, the child waking and thinking, for the first time in ages, about his dead father. The end. Life goes on.

The epilogue is divided into two parts, the second lasting about 40 pages, which is purely an essay on Tolstoy’s theory of history. History itself is often the subject of Tolstoy’s musings throughout the course of the work and, of course, many of these key passages were already underlined from my 20-something year old hand decades ago. The end of War & Peace drops the story entirely and places all the many happenings and messages of the novel within the context of history itself.

Reading Tolstoy’s concluding essay on the nature of history was a wonderful moment of rediscovery, which is why I generally hang on to classic works of literature in my personal library. You find something worthy and new in them every time you read them. In the case of War & Peace, however, Tolstoy has an interesting take on the meaning of history that is rather unique and contrasts in many ways with, say, Gunter Grass’ view of history in my post on Crabwalk (see January 30, 2010 post).

In a nutshell, Tolstoy believes that history is not the story of great works by great human beings, it is, rather, the result of the countless stirrings and synergy of the innumerable individual whims of the masses. Tolstoy democratizes history and makes great persons merely the residue of larger forces working throughout the whole of humankind.

Long before Book Two of the Epilogue, Tolstoy generously sprinkles his perspective on history throughout the second half of the story itself. On page 732, for example, he writes rather famously that: “A king is the slave to history.” On that same page, more clearly stating his point, Tolstoy says: “Consciously man lives for himself, but unconsciously he serves as an instrument for the accomplishment of the historical, social ends of mankind.” Further, “the unconscious, common, swarm life of mankind uses every moment of the life of kings as an instrument for its own ends." This, for Tolstoy, is history.

History is a living force, perhaps even a spiritual revelation. Napoleon and Tsar Alexander are merely “the involuntary tools of history, performing a function unsuspected by themselves…” (page 822) History is woven into a “complex interplay of intrigues, aims, and wishes.” (page 825)

The workings of the force of history are perhaps no better signified by Tolstoy than in contrasting the behavior of Napoleon and Russian Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov during and after the Battle of Borodino. Tolstoy depicts Napoleon as aggressively submitting orders and attempting to control the situation. But, in reality, very little of what Napoleon orders is actually accomplished. The battle rages on chiefly out of his control with most of his orders ignored or irrelevant. Later, after the capture of Moscow, Napoleon is helpless to save the destruction of the city despite his enforcement of martial law. Things just seem to happen of their own accord.

Meanwhile, Kutuzov is plagued by a large number of staff members and subordinates (even the Tsar himself) persistently pressuring him to attack Napoleon’s army, particularly as it retreats from Moscow in winter. Kutuzov, however, insists that there is little he or the Russian army can do to hasten the destruction of the French as it is happening inevitably of its own accord. For his care not to shed more Russian blood when the French army was bound for destruction anyway the Tsar dismisses the commander.

Kutuzov is Tolstoy’s zen-master of history.

Of course, for the primary characters there is little or no discussion of history as a philosophical concept or as a natural force. Pierre and Prince Andrei toy with the vague musings of it briefly and Pierre often contemplates it privately but Tolstoy wants his characters to be like us, real people caught up in history’s “swarm” but far more concerned with the “little” events of our lives than the vast workings of humanity as a whole. It is, in fact, precisely the “innumerable” concerns of everyone to their own, private “intrigues, aims, and wishes” that drives history.

“And yet actually those personal interests of the moment are always so much more significant than the general issues that because of them the latter are never felt – not even noticed, in fact. The majority of the people paid no attention to the general course of events but were influenced only by their immediate personal interests.” (page 1126)

Tolstoy goes on to emphasize that even though “the human mind cannot grasp the causes of phenomena in aggregate”, “the essence of any historical event” is to be found in “the activity of the mass of men who take part in it…” (page 1178) Even though he infers that there are certain “laws” of history, he remains vague about the specifics of his approach until we arrive at the final book in the novel.

He begins Part Two of the Epilogue with a discussion of how the events of ancient peoples were interpreted as “the will of God” whereas modern history attributes everything to the work of heroes and great men. Tolstoy thinks the contemporary approach to history is a shallow one: “…modern history is like a deaf man replying to questions no one has put to him.” (page 1416)

Then he asks what is the “power of nations?” To which he answers: “Power is the collective will of the masses, vested by expressed or tacit consent in their chosen leader.” (page 1423) Ultimately, however, “On what condition is the people’s will vested in one person? On the condition that that person expresses the will of the whole people. That is, power is power. In other words, power is a word the meaning of which we do not know.” (page 1429)

Whereas recent “historians have assumed that events depended upon the commands” of great leaders, in reality, Tolstoy claims, “they and their commands were dependent on the events.” (page 1436) Again, the sum of all individual initiatives makes history. Ironically, the power lies with the very beings that pay no attention to it and do not even seek power directly.

This leads to Tolstoy’s final inquiry, which addresses the dialectic of free will versus “necessity” as expressed in the unfolding of history. Essentially, Tolstoy believes that, when considered individually and in isolation, human actions take on the appearance of being free. However, when considered in conjunction with the mass of various persons and other influences upon an individual’s life, most of our “free” actions are “influenced” and “controlled” by these other factors.

In conclusion, the illusion of free will in the context of history is exactly the same as the illusion that the earth is fixed in space and the sun revolves around our planet. Both realities require us to give up on what appears to be true and to accept that which, by intimate experience, seems to be completely wrong.

The last paragraph of the great novel summarizes (metaphysically with hints of spirituality) the connection between the facts of astronomy and the facts of free will as Tolstoy sees it: “In the first case it was necessary to renounce the consciousness of an unreal immobility in space and to recognize a motion we did not feel; in the present case, it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist, and to recognize a dependence of which we are not conscious.” (page 1455)

For Tolstoy, history is a great irony, little contemplated by the masses that are the source of all history and ill-considered by modern historians who do not understand that events shape the figures of history, not the other way around.

Again, though featured heavily in essay form at the conclusion of War and Peace, the idea of history is sprinkled through the latter half of the massive novel. Yet, it is ultimately just the icing on the cake of what is a terrific read, with many fascinating characters, exciting moments, epic battle sequences, large aristocratic glamour, surprises, comedy, tragedy, indeed to full spectrum of human experience brought to life through a multitude of characters that are a testament to Tolstoy’s’ genius.