Thursday, December 30, 2004


Lots and Lots of Energy

I have to confess that I have a weakness for PBS documentaries. I was watching a snippet from one such documentary the other day, about WWII, when it made a point about a Nazi policy I'd never heard about before. Evidently it was Hitler's official position in the early days of the war that the peacetime lifestyle of the average German was not to be affected by the war. The Nazis evidently waited a rather long time--nearly until the time period of the Battle of Stalingrad--to put the German economy on a war footing. Meanwhile, the Americans were building Sherman tanks like Fords, and the Russians were churning out T-34s (another kind of tank) in their thousands.

A few days ago, in another snippet from the same series of documentaries (it is apparently functionally endless, since it seems to have many parts and PBS tends to re-run such things frequently), I learned that the English suffered severe hardships during the war, and that the British government set every man-jack to growing vegetables on every available patch of ground.

The upshot of the tidbits of information seemed to be that the American, Soviet, and British goverments were far more Draconian in terms of the sacrifices they imposed on their citizens than the Germans were. At least at first.

So what has this got to do with now? Well, the causes and aims of the War in Iraq are subject to dispute, as well as to misunderstanding and blatant propaganda, but from my perspective it seems obvious that it's got quite a bit to do with the Saudis and with oil. It doesn't seem rational at all that we'd be spending four billion dollars a week to "get rid of a bad guy" who was deposed two years ago and later found hiding in a hole in the ground, or that "establishing democracy" abroad can be such a crucial priority for people who exhibit such flagrant disregard for it here at home--or that Iraq would be the ideal place to start even if spreading democracy were the goal. But in any event, I'll grant you that the motives for the war may be somewhat open to interpretation, if you'll grant me, in return, if just for the sake of argument, that oil probably has at least something to do with it.

So why, then, aren't we conserving energy?

The lately departed Attorney General was quick to point out that his many restrictions on civil rights were similar to the restrictions imposed on us in other, larger, more pressing wars. No similar rationale, however, has been put forward for getting the U.S. economy on a "war footing" by demanding economic sacrifices of the American people--specifically, to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

When this war began, I assumed that the reason for it was the instability of the Saudi royal family. I assumed that our analysts had looked at the situation in the Middle East and seen that if the decadent and unpopular Saudi royal family were ever deposed and replaced by a hostile Islamic fundamentalist government, we'd be in deep doo-doo. Now I think I gave the Bushite cabal too much credit; now I think it's likely that the Bushites are just doing their Saudi friends a favor, using American tax dollars and American lives to allegedly "re-stabilize" the region to improve the peace of mind of the Saudi fat-cats--and perhaps, in the process, to gain some direct control over Middle Eastern oil production too. (Heh heh heh...wouldn't that be a nice little "unintended consequence.")

I live in a little working-class town in the Midwest. Where I live, at least, it seems like half of all the personal vehicles on the road are SUVs, enormous extended-cab pickup trucks, or so-called minivans (which are almost all now maxi-vans, but never mind). Recently we had a cold snap, during which the temperature got down to a brisk-but-tolerable 5 degrees fahrenheit (about -15 deg. C). I took my son to the toy store. In the toy store parking lot I pulled in near an immense, gleaming, chrome-bedecked black Hummer H2--with its motor running. Just out of curiosity, I looked in its windows to see what kind of person drove such a manner of beast. And it was empty.

Now, admittedly, it's nice to live in an area where you can leave an expensive vehicle idling unattended and expect it to still be there when you get back. But really. Most nights, on the local news, we are told of some young Wisconsinite with smiling countenance and bright future who got rubbed out in Iraq; we see the stricken faces of the mother and father, the brothers and sisters, see the Wal-Mart portrait of the uniformed young person with spouse and small kids. And yet we still think it's reasonable to leave an 8,600-lb. truck idling (at zero mpg, obviously) while we're shopping, just so we can leave its heater on, to avoid momentary discomfort when we return to climb back up into it. (How much can the interior of a Hummer cool down during half an hour in the Toys'R'Us? Can it get all the way back down to 5 deg. F? And if it did, how long would it take to heat up again?)

As we were leaving, a stylishly dressed woman with a tiny sack came out of the toy store and climbed into the (presumably still warm) H2, which then went lumbering away.

There just seems something badly wrong with this whole picture to me. No, not quite "wrong"--wrong might be the wrong word. Evil might be a better one. Ignorant comes to mind. Selfish just won't keep quiet, either, along with various adjectives for emphasis.

So anyway, we're at war. But the policy of the government, spoken or not, seems to be that the peacetime lifestyle of the average American shall not be infringed upon. We should be grateful, I suppose, that we just have Fallujah to deal with, and not Stalingrad.

Sunday, December 26, 2004


Ubiquity and Casualties

Many moons ago, I read a magazine article sitting in a doctor's waiting room. It was about war. The author was making (or, more probably, reporting) two basic points. The first point was that most wars are relatively minor in terms of their death toll, but that, every now and then, a huge cataclysm comes along that kills extremely large numbers of people. These, he argued, were the type of wars humankind most needs to learn how to avoid.

The second point was that the proximate causes of wars are random and unpredictable in terms of seriousness. That is, trivial events sometimes lead to war and serious events sometimes don't. It is famously said that WWI was triggered by a chauffeur taking a wrong turn (thus bringing the Archduke Ferdinand accidentally into the presence of his anarchist assassin, who exploited the coincidence, and one thing led to another). This principle is thoroughly explained in an excellent book called Ubiquity, by Mark Buchanan. Buchanan tells of an experiment in which grains of sand are dropped singly onto a larger pile of grains of sand. Some grains cause minor avalanches, some cause nothing at all, and some trigger chain reactions of cascades that seems to involve the whole pile. The salient point is that the proximate causes of all degrees of reactions are the same--the dropping of a single grain of sand. Sometimes the pile is stable, and another grain has no effect; sometimes a grain falls on an area of local instability that's ready to "go," and it triggers an adjustment, a small "sandslide"; and sometimes the whole sandpile becomes effectively a web of instability, such that a single grain of sand can cause a series of avalanches all over the surface.

And so it seems to be with wars. For instance, the current war in Iraq had as its proximate cause the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. But think of all that had to happen to get even that far. First of all, New York wanted to out-do Chicago and regain the honor of having the world's tallest building(s), a distinction it had gotten used to for years by virtue of the Empire State Building, taken away when the Sears tower was built. Next, the architect happened to choose Islamic architectural and decorative motifs.

Then came the naming of the complex. Even as the world's tallest buildings, a conspicuous feature of the New York skyline, would the twin towers have attracted the obsessive attention of Islamic terrorists if they had been named, say, the Trump Office Suites? Or perhaps, The Port Authority Headquarters Towers? Seems dubious. But the "World Trade Center"--now, that sounds less like an office building and more like, well, a target.

Of course, a whole cascade of situations needs to pertain. The failed prior attack, the existence of a renegade militant who also happens to be a millionaire (wealth usually, but unfortunately not always, co-opts radicalism fairly efficiently), and the simple fact that airline pilots tended not to panic in hijacking situations because they believed that hijackers always just want to be taken somewhere. From the hijackers' perspective, just imagine how many things had to go right for the scheme to work--from finding 19 people either suicidal or fanatical enough that they would cause their own deaths, to the series of mistakes in U.S. intelligence-gathering that allowed them to avoid detection, to the plot simply surviving the internal bickering and tensions (which must have been high, given their intended fate) amongst the hijackers themselves.

And yet even after the spectacle of the twin towers falling, the prospect of us arriving at the situation we find ourselves in now is almost infinitesimal, if you look at it from the standpoint of ubiquity. First of all, you had to have at least two fairly improbably preconditions: an existing plan by a group of right-wing hawks for asserting American dominance in the globe, and the fact that an overindulged, profligate American nation produces seven million barrels of oil every day yet consumes 20 million. (You also need a populace that can't seem to connect a dependence on foreign oil with a wholesale lack of energy conservation, even to the rather absurd point of the Hummer H2 and the Lincoln Navigator.) Then you need a "Vanna White" type of presidential candidate with a brilliant and unscrupulous political advisor who is prepared and able to make day seem like night and night seem like day, such that a remarkably unqualified political candidate can pull more or less even with a very wise and very experienced one. Of course, you need all the improbable, controversial events of the 2000 election. You need a president who sees in simplistic good-and-evil terms, knows almost nothing about foreign policy or diplomacy, and yet who also places such a high value on "loyalty" that he surrounds himself with yes-men and -women. You need lots of Administration officials who are willing to lie, wittingly or not.

In other words, in the case of the morass in Iraq, the grain of sand touched an area on the sandpile that was a web of instability, ready to be set to cascading rather extensively.

But getting back to the article I mentioned at the beginning, the consolation prize for those of us who have always objected to this asinine war is that it seems to be a rather minor conflict. So far, at least. Personally, it seems utterly obscene to me when any fine young person dies in Iraq, for a "cause" that is either so well hidden or so poorly articulated. The Republicans' bankrupting of the Treasury is something I also object to, but rather less, because it's not my money. But looked at coldly on the scale of wars, this one will remain minor so long as the casualties number in the tens of thousands, instead of the hundreds of thousands or millions. Counting civilian deaths, the toll is so far "only" 1,700+ Americans (with another 6,000 or so crippled), and "only" 40,000 or so Iraquis, the majority of whom are completely innocent civilians who have far less influence on their government than I have on mine. Doubtless, in private, George and Rummy think this degree of loss is wholly acceptable. Sadly, the American public seems to agree.

Monday, December 06, 2004


The Reason for the Season

Ah, Christmas. The ancient solstice holiday, celebrated for some 5000 years now (about the time the world started warming up enough to allow civilizations to begin flourishing). The Romans called it Saturnalia, celebrating Saturn, their god of agriculture. The early Christians disapproved and tried hard to stamp it out. Even after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity official in 325 A.D., however, the celebrating went on; so, under the principle of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," the Christians moved Christ's birthday to Dec. 25th in 336 A.D., overlaying religious significance on to the existing festivities.

"Sinterklaas" or Santa Claus is of course the symbolic embodiment of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, later sainted, who evidently took Christ's words about poverty to heart (take that, Pat Robertson!) and gave away his fortune to help those in need. In the 1800s, St. Nick made a house visit on Christmas Eve and scared the children witless, and it was the Christ child who snuck in during the night to leave gifts behind. But gradually Santa took over both tasks. Oh, and one more detail about old Nick: Charmingly, it was believed that a gooey liquid substance that formed in St. Nicholas's grave had magic healing properties. Oh, yum! Gimme some of that good stuff!

The tradition of a gift-giving Santa Claus associated with Christmas began about 1800, give or take, as a "new tradition" sponsored by the New York Historical society, with details (such as the flying sleigh) helpfully supplied by Washington Irving, the writer of Rip Van Winkle. But until the later 1800s "St. Nick" was a bearded holy man, who might or might not be portly, whose robes might be dark green or purple and were only sometimes fur-rimmed--or perhaps entirely made of fur. The familiar fat, jovial Santa Claus dressed all in red with white fur trim and boots and belt was given form in the 1830s by Thomas Nast, and gradually assumed his familiar look over the next century until he had become all but standardized by the 1920s. He was rendered into final form by an artist named Haddon Sundblom for a series of Coca-Cola advertisements in the 1930s.

...Which is appropriate, because Christmas is, of course, no longer the celebration of the solstice, but of retail sales--the state of which are breathlessly reported on television in the U.S. as the season progresses. Christian churches still insist on elbowing in with a "birthday" celebration for their "king," but apart from having been sanctified by long practice, the connection is, or was originally, fraudulent.

So when someone tells you to "remember the reason for the season," regard the tepid winter sun pale and wan and low in the sky and think to yourself, "Right--shortest day of the year."

But don't say it out is, after all, the holidays, and you wouldn't want to be a Scrooge about it.

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