July 26, 1887 A Tower of Babel

Today, Google Translate supports 108 languages serving over 200 million users, daily. Esperanto became number 64 on February 22, 2012.

In the first book of the Hebrew Bible known to Christians as the Old Testament, Genesis 11:1-9 explains the origin story, of the world’s many languages. A veritable Tower of Babel.

In the late 19th century Russian town of Białystok, in what is now Poland, a Yiddish speaking majority lived side-by-side with Poles, Belarusians, Russians, Germans, Lipka Tatars and others.  Relations were anything but harmonious between groups. Leyzer Leyvi Zamenhov was part of that Yiddish speaking majority and believed many of the differences, were linguistic.

Primera_edición_de_esperanto

As the son of a German language teacher, Zamenhof was fluent in many languages including Russian, German, French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Yiddish and English.  He was reasonably proficient in Italian, Spanish and Lithuanian, as well. Zamenhof came to believe that poor relations between Białystok’s many minorities stemmed from the lack of a common language, so it was he set out to create an “auxiliary language”. An international second language to foster communications, between people of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

Writing under the pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto”, Zamenhov published the “Unua Libro” (First Book) on July 26, 1887, setting forth the rules for the new tongue.

The goal was to create an easily learned, politically neutral language transcending nationality, fostering peace and international understanding between people with different regional and/or national languages.

Esperanto alphabet

The Esperanto alphabet includes 28 letters. There are 23 consonants, 5 cardinal vowels, and 2 semivowels which combine with vowels to form 6 diphthongs. Esperanto words are derived by stringing together prefixes, roots, and suffixes. The process is regular, so that people may create new words as they speak and still be understood.

The original core vocabulary included 900 such roots, which are combined in a regular manner so that they might be better used by international speakers.

For example, the adjective “BONA” means “GOOD”. The suffix “UL” indicates a person having a given trait, and “O” designates the ending of a noun. Therefore, the Esperanto word “BONULO” translates as “A good person”.  The title of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 movie “The Godfather”, translates as “La Baptopatro”.  “Esperanto” itself translates as “one who hopes”.

Some useful English words and phrases include the following, along with Esperanto translation and International Phonetic Alphabet transcriptions:

 ○ Do you speak Esperanto? Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton? [ˈtʃu vi pa.ˈro.las ˌes.pe.ˈran.ton]
 ○ Thank you. Dankon [ˈdan.kon]
 ○ You’re welcome. Ne dankinde [ˌne.dan.ˈkin.de]
 ○ One beer, please. Unu bieron, mi petas [ˈu.nu bi.ˈe.ron, mi ˈpe.tas]
 ○ Where is the toilet? Kie estas la necesejo? [ˈki.e ˈes.tas ˈla ˌne.tse.ˈse.jo]

Today, Google Translate supports 108 languages serving over 200 million users, daily.    Esperanto became number 64 on February 22, 2012.

May 10, 1940 And What of the Mouse?

Throughout history and across cultures, having a child with a member of a hostile force is looked upon as a grave betrayal of social values.

Throughout history and across cultures, having a child with a member of a hostile force is looked upon as a grave betrayal of social values.  Often such parents, usually women, are shunned by neighbors and even family.  “War children” may experience even worse subjected to ostracism, bullying, and more.

Much is written of what takes place, when politicians send nations to war. Few take note of the innocents. The proverbial mice wishing only to go about their business while all about them, is chaos.

“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”.

African Proverb

On the Eastern Front of World War 2, combat between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union rose to proportions of apocalyptic race war, Slav against Teuton, in a paroxysm of mutual extermination that is horrifying, even by the hellish standards of that war.  Four out of every five German soldiers who died in all World War 2, died on the ‘Ostfront’.

While precise numbers are impossible to ascertain, an estimated several hundred thousand to as many as 2 million German females from 8 to 80 were raped by Red Army soldiers. Some, as many as 60 or 70 times according to historian, William Hitchcock.. Austrian women were no different nor even Soviet women, released from work camps. 

“The front-line Russian troops who did the fighting – as a woman, you didn’t have to be afraid of them. They shot every man they saw, even old men and young boys, but they left the women alone. It was the ones who came afterwards, the second echelon, who were the worst. They did all the raping and plundering. They stripped homes of every single possession, right down to the toilets”.

Anonymous German woman, living in Berlin

British military historian Antony Beevor concludes that 1.4 million women were raped in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia, alone. Female deaths in connection with such rapes in Germany and the butchered abortion attempts which followed, are estimated at 240,000. 4,148 Red Army soldiers were punished for such atrocities.

The only survivors of 150 Polish people who walked from Lodz, Poland to Berlin Huddle in blankets, on December 14, 1945. They are waiting by a railway track hoping to be picked up by a British army train and given help. (Fred Ramage—Keystone/Getty Images / Photo colorization by Sanna Dullaway for TIME)

When Yugoslav politician Milovan Djilas complained about rapes in Yugoslavia, Stalin replied that he should “understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle.”

Small surprise when Stalin’s own Chief of the Secret Police Lavrentiy Beria, was a serial rapist.

Displaced persons cross a bridge on the River Elbe at Tangermunde, which was blown up by the Germans, to escape the chaos behind German lines caused by the approach of the advancing Russians on May 1, 1945. (Fred Ramage—Keystone/Getty Images / Photo colorization by Sanna Dullaway for TIME)

In his 2007 book Taken by Force: Rape and American GIs in Europe in World War II, Northern Kentucky University sociology and criminology professor J. Robert Lilly reports that 11,040 rapes were carried out by US servicemen.

In 1959, journalist Marta Hillers wrote what was then an anonymous memoir of the weeks between April 22 and June, 1945. In it, Hillers describes being gang raped by Red Army soldiers before forming a relationship with a Soviet officer, for her own protection. Marta Hillers died in 2001. Seven years later, her account was retold in the German feature film, Eine Frau in Berlin. (A Woman in Berlin).

German woman walks by Soviet troops in a scene from the 2008 film, A Woman in Berlin

Propaganda banners and posters appeared all over the Soviet-occupation zone and later East Germany, proclaiming the heroism of those who had smashed the Nazi war machine and paved the way to Soviet-German friendship. The plight of tens of thousands of “Russian children”, mostly fatherless, was taboo.

All these decades later, former East German Jan Gregor can still remember the day his mother told him that she was “made pregnant by force”.

An estimated 100,000 “Amerasian” children were born to Asian mothers and U.S. servicemen during WWII, the Korean War, and war in Vietnam. 

Some 37,000 children were fathered by American soldiers with German and Austrian women in the 10 years following the German surrender. Locals disapproved of such relations, not only because these Americans had recently been their enemies, but also because such children often became “wards of the state” in local economies already impoverished, by war.  The “brown children” of black GIs and German mothers were particularly difficult to adopt out in what was heretofore a racially homogeneous culture.  Many were adopted by American couples and families of African ancestry, back in the States.

Military forces of Nazi Germany invaded the neutral Scandinavian Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway on April 9, 1940.  Denmark fell in a day. Norwegian armed resistance ceased within two months, when civil rule passed to the Reichskommissariat Norwegen (Reich Commissariat of Norway).  The neutral Scandinavian countries remained under Wehrmacht occupation, for the next five years.

Sometimes, relationships formed between German occupying troops and native women.  The racially obsessed Nazi regime was happy to encourage such relations, particularly in Norway, where local women were considered to be of pure, “Aryan” ancestry.  Some such relationships were consensual.  Many were anything but.  Some 10,000 to 12,000 children were born to Norwegian women and German fathers, the most famous being Anni-Frid Synni Lyngstad of the Swedish pop group ABBA, who fled Norway after the war for fear of reprisals.

For nearly a thousand years, the administration of Iceland was all but indistinguishable from that of Denmark and Norway.  The Act of Union established Iceland as a fully sovereign state in 1918, an independent country in a personal union through a common monarch, with the Kingdom of Denmark. 

Following the allied withdrawal from Dunkirk, every nation on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation. Alarmed at the possibility of German military presence to their north, British authorities invited the neutral nation Iceland to join the war as “as a belligerent and an ally,” following the collapse of Denmark. That invitation, was rejected.

On this day in 1940, the United Kingdom invaded Iceland, an initial force of 746 British Royal Marines disembarking at the Icelandic capital of Reykjavík. 

The British invasion of Iceland never resembled the “shooting war” in Europe.  The government complained that its neutrality had been “flagrantly violated” and demanded compensation, but principle opposition took the form of hordes of civilians, who crowded in to see what was happening.  Icelandic public opinion was sharply divided at the invasion and subsequent occupation.  Many described it all as the “blessað stríðið“, the “Lovely War”, the building of a roads, hospitals, harbors, airfields and bridges across the nation a boon to the Icelandic economy.  Others resented the occupation, which rose to half the native male population.

Sexual relationships between foreign troops and local women were severely frowned upon. Such women often accused of being traitors, even prostitutes. 

In 1941, the Icelandic Minister of the Judiciary investigated “The Situation”.  Upset that foreign troops were “taking away” women from friends and family, police investigated over 500 women for sexual with soldiers and determined, most had been consensual.  Two facilities opened to house such women in 1942 but both closed, within a year. Two-hundred fifty-five ástandsbörn (‘children of the situation’) were born of such relationships.  332 Icelandic women married foreign soldiers.

It has been said that, when governments make war, it’s the everyday Joe and the Nigel, the Fritz, Pierre and the Ivan down the street, who must do the fighting, the bleeding, and the dying.  It may well be added. It’s usually left to the mice, to pick up the pieces.

March 12, 1790 A Momentary Lapse of Reason

In recent months we have learned from our “elites”, that math is racist. That men participating in women’s sports is perfectly reasonable, that men can give birth. Dumbo and Peter Pan have been canceled. Dr. Seuss is driven from polite society.

The news this morning spoke of an “elite” private school in New York, and the 12-page memorandum sent home to Moms and Dads. Turns out the Grace Church School doesn’t like the terms, “Mom” and “Dad”. Kids aren’t allowed to use them anymore. Even at home.

Leaving a reasonable person to wonder, what exactly renders these people, “elite”? And why would such a thing warrant any response at all, save for a one-finger salute?

In recent months we have learned from such “elites”, that math is racist. That men participating in women’s sports is perfectly reasonable, that men can give birth. Dumbo and Peter Pan have been canceled. Dr. Seuss is driven from polite society.

Scores of millions of women and men of all persuasions and all political stripes quietly shake their heads in hopes that this too, shall pass. And not for the first time. In 1688, no fewer than 19 counties in England and Wales mobilized to defend against armed and rampaging bands of non-existent Irishmen. In 1954, widespread observation of previously unnoticed pits and dings in windshields caused residents of Washington state to believe there was an epidemic of windshield pitting, attributed to everything from sand flea eggs, to nuclear testing.

History abounds with episodes of mass hysteria. The Dancing plague of 1518. The Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 and the granddaddy of them all la Grande Peur, the Great Fear sweeping across 1789 France culminating in the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars and an estimated 3.1 million dead Frenchmen.

All that to return back to the status quo, in 1815.

Imagine you were there, from the beginning. August 1789. Your personal politics are middle of the road, maybe a little to the left but in all respects, “Moderate”. Now imagine your nation’s politics have shifted so radically in the space of two short years, you find yourself on the “reactionary right”. You are hounded, subject to persecution, even execution, at the hands of your own government. And your personal convictions haven’t changed.

In early modern France, society broke into “three estates”: the Clergy (1st), the Nobility (2nd) and a 3rd Estate encompassing common women and men. The estates-general was a legislative body comprising three assemblies representing each of the three estates.

French society found itself at a crossroads in the late 18th century. Politically, the “commons” had become a caste of its own with a desire for parity, with the 1st and 2nd Estates. Culturally, the “Age of Enlightenment” brought with it an elevation of “Reason” at the expense of tradition and with it, a diminution of the Monarchy and the Church.

Economically, the French state carried massive debt at this time, a condition made worse by French support of the American Revolution a decade earlier. (Did we really just blow another two Trillion on a “Covid relief” package, with 7% actually going to Covid relief?)

The straw to break the camel’s back came in the form of successive crop failures. Across Europe, peasants tilled the lands of the manor houses of minor Lords who themselves owed fealty, to the higher nobility. The system had been around since Roman times. In 1789 France, successive crop failures spawned rumors of an aristocratic plot to wipe out the working classes. Peasants rose up to take action, against the seigneurs.

The fiscal and agricultural crises of 1789 pushed the nation over the edge. The “tennis court oath” that May asserted the autonomy of the third estate, a direct affront to the hereditary rights of Kings. The beast was unleashed. The mob stormed the Bastille that July leading to bread riots in the streets and a march on the King’s residence, at Versailles.

In three short months, King Louis XVI was stripped of executive authority.

On this day in 1790, the national Assembly decreed the sale of church-owned lands by municipalities, an affront to church authority unimaginable, in earlier ages.

King Louis XVI of France

King Louis XVI fled with his family in June 1791 only to be captured, returned to Paris and placed under guard. Even then the first French constitution approved that September, reflected the voices of moderation. While sharply limiting monarchical power the King still kept his head, still GOT to be King while enjoying veto power and the authority to appoint ministers.

Radical elements were inflamed, led by the likes of Maximilien de Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and Georges Danton. The King must be put on trial. Louis XVI was deposed in August 1792 and thrown in prison, followed by an orgy of violence against suspected “counter-revolutionaries”.

Once absolute monarch of France, “Citizen Louis Capet” was executed by guillotine in January 1793 in front of a crowd of 100,000. Bloodthirsty sans culottes rejoiced, wrote The London Times, while “honest citizens… could not suppress their heartfelt grief and mourned in private”. Queen Marie-Antoinette followed her husband to the guillotine, nine months later. The son of the royal couple, Louis-Charles, was thrown into a stone prison cell at the age of 8. The boy was dead at ten. The physician who performed his autopsy expressed shock and dismay at the scars, covering his little body.

The Jacobins, the most radically leftist in a kaleidoscopic mélange of competing factions, were now in power. These people went so far as to abolish history itself, creating a new calendar with themselves at the beginning. Year one. Just like that proclaimed by Pol Pot in April, 1975.

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”.

Historical caricature of the reign of terror

The revolution turned on itself and ate its own young in 1793-’94, a period described as the “reign of terror”. Victims by the tens of thousands walked their final steps to the guillotine, while equal numbers stood to face firing squads.

Robespierre, once the thought leader behind this whole mess, came to be seen as an enemy of the Revolution. Knowing all too well what would happen next Robespierre shot himself in the face, to prevent his own arrest. The suicide attempt succeeded only in destroying the man’s lower jaw, and several teeth. That visage, once the face of Revolution itself and now wrapped in blood soaked bandages, was separated from the rest of him the following day.

Fun fact: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin had nothing to do with the contraption, that bears his name. He didn’t even approve of capital punishment. As a physician, the torture inflicted by breaking on the wheel, burning at the stake, death by boiling and dismemberment was repugnant. To be hacked at by axe or sword was hardly any better. If capital punishment was to be carried out at all he believed, the quick, impersonal and painless death afforded by a decapitation machine might just be the first step toward abolishing the death penalty, altogether.

It was Tobias Schmidt who actually invented the thing. The association with the guillotine so embarrassed the doctor’s family they changed their name. One J.M.V. Guillotin, an unrelated physician practicing in Lyons, met his end on the guillotine, giving rise to the myth that the inventor was killed by his own machine. Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin died at home of natural causes, in 1814.

Robespierre was barely in the ground when a certain Corsican corporal was thrown in prison, a suspected supporter of Robespierre. Napoleon Buonaparte would earn a place with the regime in October 1796, 13 Vendémiaire according to the new calendar, by putting down a royalist revolt in the streets.

The Napoleonic era had begun, fifteen years of violence pitting no fewer than 7 international coalitions, against the French war machine. French historian Hippolyte Taine has claimed the Revolution and Napoleonic wars took the lives of 3.1 million Frenchmen, alone. Precise numbers are impossible to determine.

Mark Twain once said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Following a year-long government lockdown and four years of the most divisive politics in American history – even Civil War soldiers from the north and south agreed about 80% of the time – we find ourselves in a period of national hysteria. The capital is surrounded by armed troops, and razor wire. Social media billionaires with funny haircuts and weird beards arrogate to themselves who gets to say what, and when. 1st Amendment be damned.

The wealthiest man on the planet shuts down whole social media channels while #2 rains down cash on racists, claiming to root the racists out of math.

Or maybe men really can give birth and math really is, racist. Who knows, maybe everything will turn out right, after all. Now that we’ve unsexed Mr. Potato Head.

February 20, 1280 Divine Wind

For Japan the Kamikaze of the 13th century became a foundational myth. The Divine Wind, a literal act of Divine Providence sweeping the enemy from the seas. It was the stuff of nationhood. Not until the 20th century would Japan be called upon, to again defend her natural borders. The myth of the Divine Wind would prove to be just the thing.

Sometime around the year 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, described the nature of peace, Roman style. The Pax Romana. “They make a desert and call it peace“.

So it was with the Pax Mongolica, a time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.” A time of peace for those who would submit, and pay tribute.

Mongolian horsemen ride in formation during the opening ceremony of the annual Naadam festival in the town of Arvaikheer, some 400 km (250 miles) west of Ulan Bator, July 9, 2006. This year’s festival is bigger than ever, as Mongolia celebrates 800 years since Genghis Khan united the nation. Celebrations around the country will culminate in a national festival in the capital on July 11. REUTERS/Nir Elias (MONGOLIA)

Never mind the pyramid of skulls over there. The Mongol conquests lasted 199 years and killed an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population, of the entire planet.

Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, capable of hitting a bird in flight.

The Mongol bow was a laminate of horn and tendon around a bamboo core, the “push/pull” of the two materials producing draw weights of 80 to 160 pounds depending on the physical strength of its user. Deadly accurate aimed shots were possible at 200 meters, over twice the length of an NFL football field. Ballistic fire rained down at 500 meters, equivalent to the height of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, plus another football field. Stirrups allowed riders to fire in any direction including to the rear. The feigned retreat was a favored tactic. God help anyone rash enough, to pursue.

The warrior Esungge was the Jim Thorpe or the Michael Jordan of his day, this nephew of Genghis Khan possessed of legendary strength and skill, as an archer. In a 1225 gathering of Mongol dignitaries, Esungge struck a target at 400 meters.

Riders had a minimum of 3-4 small, fast horses, able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep them fresh. 

In a day and age when the movement of armies was limited to +/- 30 miles per day, Mongol warriors could cover 100 miles and more.  Even as the first rumors arrived concerning the approach of this horde, there in the distance appeared the guidons of the lead riders. The apocalypse was right outside your door.

First came Börte, the first and favorite wife of Temüjin, kidnapped when her husband was only 19. By raising a force sufficient to enforce his will and accomplishing her rescue, Temüjin proved his military mettle. Next came the civil war which he won, based on two innovations. First, Temüjin promoted people based on merit, rather than family connections. The great Mongol general Jebe steps onto the pages of history not as a favorite, but as the enemy who put an arrow in Temüjin’s neck, at the Battle of the 13 Sides.

The Mongolian actress Khulan Chuluun first came to international notice as Börte in the 2007 Oscar nominated Russian film, Mongol.

Next, the leader of the Mongols welcomed the lower classes among conquered peoples while the wealthy and powerful among them ended up destitute, or dead.

After founding an empire, Temüjin was proclaimed Genghis Khan, an honorary title possible ascending from the Turkic “tengiz” or sea, and Khan, meaning “Supreme Leader”. Genghis Khan, his sons and grandsons went to war on a scale never before seen in human history.

Genghis, went after the dynasty of the western Xia first and then the Jin dynasty, in the north of China. Once considered little more than a nuisance on the outskirts of civilization, the Mongol horde had now subjugated a nation of 25 million.

H/T ancient.eu, original image by bkkbrad

In 25 years the Mongols conquered more territory than Rome had managed to conquer, in 400 years. By the time of Genghis’ death in 1227, the Mongol empire stretched from the Pacific ocean to the Caspian sea. Ten million square miles, equal to the entire African continent. More than all of North America, Central America and all the islands of the Caribbean, combined.

Before he died, Genghis instructed his empire be divided into four Khanates, each to be ruled by one of his four sons: Jochi, Chagatai, Ögedei and Tolui. Genghis was buried in a secret location near the sacred mountain at Burkan Kuldun. Ögedei sacrificed 40 slave girls and 40 horses to lead his father into the next world. In 1228 the kurultai, the political and military council governing ancient Mongol and Turkic politics, elected Ögedei Supreme Leader.

Fun fact: Ögedei was the third son of Genghis, hand selected by the Great Khan to be his successor and Supreme Leader of the Mongol empire. He was also, a drunk. Chastised for his drinking by his brother Chagatai, Ögedei offered to have a supervisor keep an eye on how much he drank, and agreed to keep his consumption to a specified number of cups per day. After that the Great Khan would always drink his favorite sauce, from a very large cup.

Ögedei is credited with creating a system of taxation of the peoples conquered by his father, and establishing the first capital of the Mongol empire, at Karakorum. Later capital cities would include Daidu (Beijing) and Xanadu, whose name would live on in a mediocre 1980 film by the same name, starring Olivia Newton-John.

Somehow I wonder if Kublai Khan would have recognized his summer capital in that film, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.

In 1231, Ögedei launched the first of what would be seven invasions of Goryeo, the ancient proto-state we now know as Korea.

Mongol armies under the Great Khan Ögedei raided west from Afghanistan to Iran, sacking the great cities of the Bulgars and the Rus and reaching as far as Hungary and Poland. Kiev, Krakow, Buda and Pest were all sacked, and looted. The first scouts reached as far as Bohemia and Vienna. The horde was poised to sweep through all Europe when the Great Khan died in 1241, most likely during one of the drinking binges for which the Great Khan was famous.

According to the Law of Yassa, they all turned back for Karakorum and the selection, of a new Khan.

Fun fact: Georgia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world converting to Christianity in the 4th century following the death of Christ. At the time of the apocalyptic 12th century invasion by Mongols, Georgia was preparing to join the 5th Crusade to retake Jerusalem. Census numbers taken by the Mongols themselves indicated Georgia’s ability to raise 4½ tumens, or 45,000 troops. Today we can only guess at how 45,000 troops may have affected the outcome.

There followed a period of short-lived Khans followed by regents, usually the wives or mothers of past or future khans. The tale of female domination in this world run by men is a story in itself, but now I’m getting ahead of the story. Again.

The 4th Khagan (Supreme ruler) of the Mongol Empire Möngke conquered Iraq and Syria, putting an end to the “Golden Age” of Islam. The death of Möngke Khan in 1259 set off a civil war between two brothers, grandsons of Genghis Khan. Kublai emerged victorious in 1264 over his younger brother Ariq Böke. He went on to subjugate the Song of the south of China, unifying that nation under one rule for the first time since the 9th century.

Kublai Khan, Khagan of the Mongol Empire and self styled emperor of the Yuan dynasty sits atop a throne carried by four elephants in this 18th century engraving. H/T Wikipedia

Korea, ravaged by 39 years of the Mongolian menace with barely a wooden structure left standing, capitulated and became a tributary state. It was the apex of the Mongol empire, a landmass now extending from the Sea of Japan to the shores of Turkmenistan.

In three generations the Mongols now ran the second largest empire in history, second only to that of Great Britain. Nearly 18% of dry land on the entire planet was under Mongol rule when Kublai, the self-styled Yuan emperor, set his sights on Japan.

In 1266 Kublai demanded that Japan too, become a vassal state. He sent emissaries with a letter. It is hard to find more entitlement, more arrogance and more menace, in so few words.

Cherished by the Mandate of Heaven, the Great Mongol Emperor sends this letter to the King of Japan. The sovereigns of small countries, sharing borders with each other, have for a long time been concerned to communicate with each other and become friendly… Goryeo rendered thanks for my ceasefire and for restoring their land and people when I ascended the throne. Our relation is feudatory like a father and son. We think you already know this…Enter into friendly relations with each other from now on. We think all countries belong to one family. How are we in the right, unless we comprehend this? Nobody would wish to resort to arms.”

The overture was ignored by Shogun Shikken (regent) Hōjō Tokimune and by Emperor Kameyama as was a second, two years later. Subsequent Korean emissaries and Mongol ambassadors weren’t even allowed to land.

The first invasion fleet arrived on Tsushima Island on November 4, 1274. Both sides wildly overestimated the strength of the other. Modern estimates put Japanese defenders at 4,000 to 6,000 over the next few days, the Yuan invading force at roughly 22,000 Mongol, Han, Jurchen and Korean soldiers and another 8,000 Korean sailors.

80 mounted samurai and their retinues stood in the way of that initial landing. The outcome was never in doubt but the small garrison sold their lives dearly. one samurai called Sukesada is said to have cut down 25 invaders in single combat. Results were much the same at Iki Island and Hakata Bay. Gunpowder bombs were hurled at defenders confusing samurai and terrifying horses. Such weapons had never before been seen outside of China but modern shipwreck excavations, have confirmed their existence. Stoneware bombs stuffed with gunpowder and scrap iron.

Defenders retreated to Mizuki, the ancient earthwork moat fort where all expected a final stand, but it never happened.

Back on the ships, three Yuan generals discussed what to do next. Liu Fuxiang, shot in the face by the samurai Shōni Kagesuke, believed the troops were exhausted, and needed to rest. Holdon wanted to press the attack but Hong Dagu agreed with Liu. Most of the invaders left that night, and then it happened. The Divine Wind of Retribution. The Kamikaze.

Portion of the “Mongol Scroll”, Illustrated Account of the Mongol Invasion of Japan.’ Commissioned by Takezaki Suenaga, 1293

The typhoon rising out of the east drove the Yuan fleet, dashing some onto the rocks and sinking others to the bottom. Anyone caught on the beach was executed on the spot save for Song Chinese who were believed to be there, against their will. The Mongol vessels, river craft without keel, struggled to make way. In the end some 200 ships were lost. 14,000 men departing with the invading force, never came home.

The power of the Khan depended on legends of invincibility. Such a defeat could be easily afforded, but not tolerated. There followed a period of intense diplomacy as the Khagan dealt with the troublesome Song. On September 1275, Kublai Khan sent five more emissaries to Kyūshū. These weren’t about to be sent home without an answer and so they received their response. Tokimune had them all beheaded, by sword. Five more came in 1279, with the same result.

Then came the ultimatum from the Great Khan himself. A letter. On February 20, 1281, the Japanese Imperial Court ordered all temples and shrines to pray for victory, in the second Mongol invasion.

It was the largest amphibious invasion in history until the 20th century assault on Normandy. Miles of defensive wall had been built in places, over 9-feet tall. Spikes (left) prevented Mongol vessels from approaching the shore.

A northern fleet departed Korea with 900 ships and 40,000 soldiers. The southern fleet sailed from China with an overwhelming force of 3,500 ships and 100,000 soldiers. The onslaught from Korea arrived in June, once again overwhelming the mid-channel islands at Tsushima and Iki.

This time, the formidable defenses along the shore at Hakata Bay held the invader. Invader and defender fought along the waterline, sometimes In the surf but defenses, held. Fleets of small vessels with a dozen warriors apiece swarmed among the Mongol fleet, setting fires and bringing the fight, to the enemy. These small boats accomplished little militarily but Mongol captains responded, chaining their ships together to better defend themselves.

The southern fleet arrived in August, the combined forces moving east to attack Takashima. For weeks, defenders kept the invader from getting a foothold, but no one can resist such overwhelming numbers. Not for long.

Then as before, came the Divine Wind. The Kamikaze. Unexpected in this early season and shocking in its intensity, the typhoon lashed the western shores of the home islands on August 15. Small Japanese vessels were able to seek shelter. Sturdier Korean ships were able to shelter in open water but, the makeshift Chinese fleet, never had a chance. A third of the northern fleet and over half of the southern, was destroyed. Those lucky enough to make it to land were executed, on the beach. A carpet of bodies and wreckage floated so densely on the surf, it seemed one could walk on water.

Kublai Khan never recovered. Nor did the Mongol empire. With all that manpower, all that wealth at the bottom of the ocean, the Great Khan turned first to corrupt financial advisors and later to gluttony, and alcohol. Military orders became increasingly irrational. Orders for a third invasion of Japan, that never materialized. Invasions of Vietnam and Java turned to debacle. With the deaths of his favorite wife and heir apparent, Kublai withdrew from affairs of government and died in 1294, fat, alcoholic and afflicted by gout.

For Japan the Kamikaze became a foundational myth. The Divine Wind, a literal act of Divine Providence sweeping the enemy from the seas. It was the stuff of nationhood. Not until the 20th century would Japan be called upon, to again defend her natural borders. The myth of the Divine Wind would prove to be just the thing.

USS BUNKER HILL hit by two Kamikazes in 30 seconds on 11 May 1945 off Kyushu. Dead – 372. Wounded – 264. (Navy) NARA FILE #: 080-G-323712 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 980

February 9, 1945 An Underwater Chernobyl

Only 4kg of mercury are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. The Nazi submarine sank this day in 1945 carrying 67 tons.

A light rain fell on Heston Aerodrome in London, as thousands thronged the tarmac awaiting the return of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Searing memories of the Great War only 20 years in the past, hung over London like some black and malevolent cloud.

Emerging from the door of the aircraft that evening in September, 1938, the Prime minister began to speak.  The piece of paper Chamberlain held in his hand annexed that bit of the Czechoslovak Republic known as the “Sudetenland”, to Nazi Germany. Germany’s territorial ambitions to her east, were sated. It was peace in our time.

With the March invasion of Czecho-Slovakia, Hitler demonstrated even to Neville Chamberlain that the so-called Munich agreement, meant nothing. That Poland was next was an open secret.  Polish-British mutual aid talks began that April. Two days after Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, the Polish-British Common Defense Pact was added to the Franco-Polish Military Alliance.  Should Poland be invaded by a foreign power, England and France were now committed to intervene. That same month the first fourteen “Unterseeboots” (U-boats) left their bases, fanning out across the North Atlantic. 

The German invasion of Poland began on September 1, the same day the British passenger liner SS Athenia departed Glasgow for Montreal with 1,418 passengers and crew.  Two days later Great Britain and France declared war, on Germany. With the declaration only hours old, Athenia was seating her second round of dinner guests, for the evening.

At 19:40, U-30 Oberleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp fired two torpedos, one striking the liner’s port side engine room.   14 hours later, Athenia sank stern first with the loss of 98 passengers and 19 crew. The Battle of the Atlantic, had begun.

In a repeat of WWI, both England and Germany implemented blockades on one another.   And for good reason.  At the height of the war England alone required over a million tons a week of imported goods, to survive and to stay in the fight.

The “Battle of the Atlantic” lasted 5 years, 8 months and 5 days ranging from the Irish Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Caribbean to the Arctic Ocean. 

New weapons and tactics would shift the balance first in favor of one side, and then to the other.  Before it was over 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk to the bottom. 500,000 tons of allied shipping was sunk in June 1941, alone.

Nazi Germany lost 783 U-boats.

Submarines operate in 3-dimensional space but their most effective weapon, does not.  The torpedo is a surface weapon operating in two-dimensional space:  left, right and forward.  Firing at a submerged target requires that the torpedo be converted to neutral buoyancy. The complexity of firing calculations are all but insurmountable.

The most unusual underwater action of the war occurred on February 9, 1945 in the form of a combat between two submerged submarines. 

u-864
U-864

The war was going badly for the Axis Powers in 1945, the allies enjoying near-uncontested supremacy over the world’s shipping lanes.  Any surface delivery between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was sure to be detected and destroyed.  The maiden voyage of the 287-foot, 1,799 ton German submarine U-864 departed on “Operation Caesar” on December 5, delivering Messerschmitt jet engine parts, V-2 missile guidance systems and 67 tons of mercury to the Imperial Japanese war production industry.

u-864-location

The mission was a failure, from the start. U-864 ran aground in the Kiel Canal and had to retreat to Bergen, Norway, for repairs. The submarine was able to clear the island of Fedje off the Norway coast undetected on February 6.  By this time British MI6 had broken the German Enigma code and were well aware, of Operation Caesar.

The British submarine Venturer, commanded by 25-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, was dispatched from the Shetland Islands to intercept and destroy U-864.

ASDIC, an early name for sonar, would have been helpful in locating U-864, but at a price.  That familiar “ping” would have been heard by both sides, alerting the German commander he was being hunted.  Launders opted for hydrophones, a passive listening device which could alert him to external noises.  Calculating his adversary’s direction, depth and speed was vastly more complicated without ASDIC but the need for stealth, won out.

U-864 developed an engine noise and commander Ralf-Reimar Wolfram feared it might give him away. The submarine returned to Bergen for repairs.  German submarines of the age were equipped with “snorkels”, heavy tubes which broke the surface, enabling diesel engines and crews to breathe while running submerged.  Venturer was on batteries when those first sounds were detected.

The British sub had the advantage in stealth but only a short time frame, in which act.

u-864-wreck

A four dimensional firing solution accounting for time, distance, bearing and target depth was theoretically possible but had rarely been attempted under combat conditions.  Unknown factors could only be guessed at.

A fast attack sub Venturer only carried four torpedo tubes, far fewer than her much larger adversary.  Launders calculated his firing solution, ordering all four tubes and firing with a 17½ second delay between each pair.  With four incoming at different depths, the German sub didn’t have time to react.  Wolfram was only just retrieving his snorkel and converting to electric, when the #4 torpedo struck.  U-864 imploded and sank, instantly killing all 73 aboard.

So, what about all that mercury?

In our time, authorities recommend consumption limits of certain fish species. Sharp limitations are recommended for pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Fish and shellfish have a natural tendency to concentrate or bioaccumulate mercury in body tissues in the form of methylmercury, a highly toxic organic compound of mercury. Concentrations increase as you move up the underwater food chain. In a process called biomagnification, apex predators such as tuna, swordfish and king mackerel may develop mercury concentrations up to ten times higher than prey species.

The toxic effects of mercury include damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs and long term neurological damage, particularly in children.

Exposures lead to disorders ranging from numbness in the hands and feet, muscle weakness, loss of peripheral vision and damage to hearing and speech.

In extreme cases, symptoms include insanity, paralysis, coma, and death. The range of symptoms was first identified in the city of Minamata, Japan in 1956 and results from high concentrations of methylmercury.

In the case of Minamata, methylmercury originated in industrial wastewater from a chemical factory, bioaccumulated and biomagnified in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea. Deaths from Minamata disease continued some 36 years among humans, dogs and pigs. The problem was so severe among cats as to spawn a feline veterinary condition known as “dancing cat fever”.

Today, 67 tons of mercury lie under 490-feet of water at the bottom of the north sea, in the broken hull of Adolf Hitler’s last best chance. Rusting containers have already begun to leach toxic mercury into surrounding waters.

The wreck has been called an “underwater Chernobyl”.

Only 4kg are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. Pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children are advised not to eat fish caught near the wreck.

The wreck was located in 2003. Discussions began almost immediately to retrieve the deadly cargo from what Oslo’s newspaper Dagbladet called, “Hitler’s secret poison bomb.”

Now, 76 years to the day from the last dive of the U-864, the submarine’s hull and mercury containment vessels are believed too fragile to be brought to the surface.

In the fall of 2018, the Norwegian government decided to bury the thing under a great sarcophagus, of concrete and sand. Much the same technique as that used in Chernobyl to sea off contaminated reactors. The work was projected to cost $32 million (US) with completion date, of late 2020. The work was was delayed and once again, the government is now examining the possibility of retrieving the cargo.

February 7, 1917 The Road to War

In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California…the Zimmermann telegram…the combination of events became the last straw. The United States entered the Great War about a month later.

On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand  began a cascade of events which would change the course of the 20th century.  Entangling alliances and mutual suspicion led to the mobilization and counter-mobilization of armies.  No one wanted to show up late in the event of war.  And so there was war.  By October, the “Great War” had devolved into the trench-bound hell which would characterize the next four years.

The German and British economies were heavily dependent on imports to feed their populations and prosecute the war effort. By February 1915, both powers were attempting to throttle the other through naval blockade.

Great Britain’s Royal Navy had superior numbers, while the Imperial German Navy’s surface fleet was restricted to an area of the North Sea called the German Bight. In other theaters, Germans augmented their small navy with commerce raiders and “unterseeboots”.  More than any other cause it was the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which would bring the United States into the war, two years later.

wwi-submarine

On February 4, 1915, Imperial Germany declared a naval blockade against shipping to Britain, stating that “On and after February 18th every enemy merchant vessel found in this region will be destroyed, without its always being possible to warn the crews or passengers of the dangers threatening”. “Neutral ships” it continued, “will also incur danger in the war region”.

lusitania-sinking

As the war unfolded, German U-boats sank nearly 5,000 ships, close to 13 million gross register ton including the Cunard Liner Lusitania, torpedoed and sunk off Kinsale, Ireland, on May 7, 1915. 1,198 were drowned, including 128 Americans.  100 of the dead, were children. .

The reaction in the US and UK was immediate and vehement. The sinking was portrayed as the act of barbarians and Huns. Imperial Germany maintained that Lusitania was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Furthermore, the embassy pointed out that ads had been taken out in the New York Times and other newspapers, specifically warning that the liner was subject to attack.

lusitania-warning
Warnings from the German embassy often ran directly opposite ads for the sailing. Many dismissed such warnings believing such an attack, unlikely.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended for a time, for fear of bringing the US into the war.  The policy was reinstated in January 1917 prompting then-Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg to say, “Germany is finished”.  He was right.

SS Housatonic was stopped off the southwest coast of England and boarded by German submarine U-53.  American Captain Thomas Ensor was interviewed by Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose, who said he was sorry.  Housatonic was “carrying food supplies to the enemy of my country”, and would be destroyed.  The American Captain and crew were allowed to launch lifeboats and abandon ship, while German sailors raided the American submarine, for soap supplies.  

Apparently, WWI vintage German subs were short on soap.

Housatonic was sunk with a single torpedo, U-53 towing the now-stranded Americans toward the English coast.  Sighting the trawler Salvator, Rose fired his deck guns to be sure they’d been seen, and then slipped away.  It was February 3, 1917.

President Woodrow Wilson retaliated, breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany the following day. Three days later, on February 7, a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the SS California, off the Irish coast. One missed but the second tore into the port side of the 470-foot, 9,000-ton steamer. California sank in nine minutes, killing 43 of her 205 passengers and crew.

zimmerman-note

Two weeks later, British Intelligence divulged the Zimmermann note to Edward Bell, secretary to the United States Embassy in Britain.  This was an overture from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government, promising American territories in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the US.

Zimmermann’s note read, in part, as follows:

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona…”

In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California…the Zimmermann telegram…the combination of events became the last straw.  The United States entered the Great War about a month later.

At the time, the German claim that Lusitania carried contraband munitions seemed to be supported by survivors’ reports of secondary explosions within the stricken liner’s hull. In 2008, the UK Daily Mail reported that dive teams had reached the wreck, lying at a depth of 300′. Divers reported finding tons of US manufactured Remington .303 ammunition, about 4 million rounds, stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds in cases marked “Cheese”, “Butter”, and “Oysters”.

January 30, 1889 If Only

“What if” counterfactuals can be slippery. We can’t know how a story will end only by starting it out… “if only”. But still…

“What if” counterfactuals can be slippery. We can’t know how a story will end only by starting it out… “if only”. But still. How might the 20th century have played out, for example, had it not been for that day in Sarajevo, in 1914.

Perhaps the tinderbox already building by 1914 would have been lit, on some other day. But what if? Maybe two World Wars never happened, after all. Adolf Hitler remained a mediocre artist living in a flop house, in Vienna. All China became a free market, and not just Taiwan. What if the cold war, communism and everything that stemmed from that malevolent ideology was nothing more than the unpublished, nightmare imaginings of some crazy novelist?

In the wake of World War 2, a bipolar structure emerged in the world political order and remained so, for 40 years.

America was a minor player in pre-WW1 affairs, a period about which Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck once explained: “All politics reduces itself to this formula: try to be one of three, as long as the world is governed by the unstable equilibrium of five great powers.”

After the downfall of French Emperor Napoleon I, 1814-’15, the Great Powers of Austria, Britain, France, Russia and Prussia met in Vienna to settle old issues and rebalance national boundaries in order to bring long-term peace, to Europe.

Austria declined over the next half-century leading to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, an accord between the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary. Ostensibly a constitutional union, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a kaleidoscope of fifteen distinct ethnic groups speaking at least as many languages and divided, along no fewer than six religious lines.

After the 1889 suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf, the only son of Franz Josef, the emperor’s younger brother Karl Ludwig became heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Ludwig’s death in 1896 left his eldest son, Franz Ferdinand, the new heir presumptive.

Otto von Bismarck once said the next European war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. Bismarck got his damn fool thing in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. We all know the story. The diplomatic visit of an heir presumptive. The open car. The wrong turn. The assassin.

There followed a series of diplomatic missteps, military mobilizations and counter-mobilizations called the “July Crisis of 1914″. By August there was no turning back. The “War to End all Wars” would shatter a generation, lay waste to a continent and erect the foundation, for the rest of the 20th century.

So, what about Rudolf and that “suicide”, in 1889. He was supposed to succeed Ludwig, not Ferdinand. What if the Emperor’s only son, had lived?

Political alliances came and went among the dynastic families of Europe, with treaties often sealed by arranged marriages.  On May 10, 1881, Crown Prince Rudolf married Princess Stéphanie, daughter of King Leopold, of Belgium.

Crown Prince Rudolf and his wife, Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, daughter of King Leopold II

A child was born in 1883, Archduchess Elisabeth, but the union soon soured. Rudolf began to drink and pursue women, not his wife. He wanted to write to Pope Leo XIII to annul the marriage. The formidable Franz Josef, would have none of that.

Three years later, Rudolf bought a hunting lodge in the Austrian village of Mayerling. In 1888, the 30-year old crown Prince met and began an affair with 17-year-old Marie Freiin (Baroness) von Vetsera.

Marie Freiin von Vetsera preferred to go by the more fashionable Anglophile version of her name, Mary

On January 30, 1889, the bodies of the Crown Prince and the Baroness were discovered in the Mayerling hunting lodge, victims of an apparent suicide pact.

Mayerling

Emperor Franz Josef went on to reign until 1916, one of the longest-serving monarchs of the 19th century.

Now without male heir, succession to the imperial throne passed first to the emperor’s younger brother Ludwig and later to Franz Ferdinand, best remembered for his assassination, in 1914.

Empress Elizabeth of Bavaria, Rudolf’s mother, went into deep mourning.

She wore the colors of her grief, pearl gray and black, every day until her assassination at the hands of 25-year-old Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni, in 1898.

132 years later we can only ponder. It may be the ultimate counterfactual. What if Crown Prince Rudolf had lived to succeed Franz Josef. Politically, the son was far more liberal, than his father. Rudolf would surely have held more conciliatory views toward the forces, tearing at the empire. The same could be said of Franz Ferdinand, so who knows. Perhaps a rock in a stream once moved, alters not the flow of events yet to come.

But maybe that fork in the road met on June 28, 1914, would have led to a road less traveled and perhaps, the history of the last century, never happened.

Afterward,

By special dispensation, the Vatican declared Rudolf to be in a state of “mental imbalance” as suicide would have precluded church burial. The Emperor ordered Mayerling transformed into a penitential convent and endowed a chantry ensuring that prayers would rise up daily, for the eternal rest of his only son.

Vetsera’s body was smuggled out in the dark of night and quietly buried in the village cemetery at Heiligenkreuz, her funeral so secret even her mother was forbidden to attend.

Stories of poison gave way to reports of murder-suicide. Rumors have surrounded the Mayerling incident, for 100 years. Such stories went unchallenged until 1946 when occupying Red Army troops dislodged the stone covering the crypt and opened Vetsera’s coffin, looking for jewels. Repairing the damage some nine years later the fathers of the monastery observed the small skull and noticed, the absence of bullet holes. Physician Gerd Holler examined the remains in 1959 and concurred. No bullet hole.

But Maria von Vetsera was shot by the Crown Prince who later took his own life. That was the story, right?

Stories came to life of defensive wounds. Of evidence the pair had been murdered, after all.

Obsessed with the tale, Linz furniture store owner Helmut Flatzelsteiner disturbed the remains yet again, in 1991. Rumors went wild but in the end, results were inconclusive. Flatzelsteiner paid the abbey €2,000, in restitution.

In 2015 a letter was found in a safe deposit box, in an Austrian bank. A suicide note from a young girl, to her mother

“Dear Mother
Please forgive me for what I’ve done
I could not resist love
In accordance with Him, I want to be buried next to Him in the Cemetery of Alland
I am happier in death than life”.

January 16, 27BC Republic

“Many Romans themselves put the key turning point in 133 BC. This was the year when a young aristocrat, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, held the office of ‘tribune’ (a junior magistracy which had originally been founded to protect the interests of the common people). As one ancient writer put it, this was when ‘daggers first entered the forum”. – BBC

According to legend, Romulus and Remus were the sons of Rhea Silvia, the daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa, a mythical city located in the Alban Hills southeast of what would become Rome.  Numitor was deposed by his younger brother Amulius, who forced Rhea to become a vestal virgin so that she would not give birth to rival claimants to his throne. She however, was already pregnant by the war god Mars, destined to give birth, to twins.

Romulus and Remus, by Rubens

Learning of the birth, Amulius ordered the infants Romulus and Remus drowned in the Tiber river. The twins survived, washing ashore at the foot of the Palatine hill, where the two were suckled by a she-wolf.

Later discovered by the shepherd Faustulus, the boys were reared by he and his wife. Much later, the brothers became leaders of a band of young shepherd warriors. On learning their true identity, the twins attacked Alba Longa, killed King Amulius, and restored their grandfather to the throne.

Romulus and Remus founded a town on the site of their salvation, the traditional date being April 21, 753BC. Romulus later murdered his brother after some petty quarrel, making himself sole ruler of the settlement which he modestly called “Rome”, in his own honor.

Except, the whole story, is nonsense. Much like a centurion with a cell phone.

It’s more likely that first three hundred years were a scrap for survival. If anyone had time to write down a serious history, it’s been lost.

Sparse factual material was embellished by later generations with some facts exaggerated or invented outright, while the more embarrassing episodes, were “disappeared”. This early or Regal period is said to be a time of six Kings, benevolent rulers all except for the seventh, a cruel tyrant known as Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.

According to legend, Tarquin was overthrown by public uprising, around 509/510BC. Etruscan civilization, dominant over the Italian peninsula since 900BC, had begun to lose hold. A series of wars would see the ascension of the Latin League (albeit temporarily), at the expense of the Etruscan league. The siege of Veii in 396BC brought the ancient Etruscan city into the Roman orbit.

The last remnants were absorbed in 27BC as Republic morphed into Empire, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.

Rather than restoring the monarchy, the Romans replaced the kingship with two annually elected magistrates, or Consuls. The Republic, was born.

The historian Livy tells us, the first 200 years of Republic was a never ending struggle between two social orders: Patricians and Plebeians. The privileged classes, and the common citizen.

The republic built a governing system of three branches with checks and balances and a strong aversion to the concentration of power.

The executive branch or Consuls (usually two) were primarily Generals, whose job was to lead the republican military in war. In times of national emergency, Rome would appoint a dictator in place of Consuls, a military leader entrusted with supreme command for no more than six months.

The Senate consisted of 300 who served, for life. Primarily an advisory body, the Senate focused mostly on foreign policy but exercised considerable jurisdiction over civil affairs, as the Senate controlled the treasury. At first exclusive to ex-consuls and other members of the Patrician class, the Senate would later open to members of the Plebian class.

Last came the Assemblies, the most democratic branch of Republican government, of which there were four.

Within fifteen years, the crushing debt of endless wars and the excesses of the publicani, the ruthless, usurious contractors hired by the state to collect taxes, brought the Plebeians to open revolt. There was talk of assassinating a Consul. The Plebs seceded in 493BC in much the same way, as a modern labor strike. With the economy ground to a halt, the popular ex-consul Agrippa Menenius was sent to negotiate, resulting in a direct representative of the common man, in the Assembly. This was the Tribune of the Plebs of which there were two, and later ten.

With their physical person sacrosanct, anyone who laid a hand on them was subject to death, the Tribune of the Plebs was uniquely able to propose and veto legislation and to rescue commoners, from the hands of Patrician magistrates. Several important offices opened to the Plebs by the 4th century BC, up to and including that of Consul, and Dictator

The working classes left the city en masse, leaving the wealthy elite, to fend for themselves.

In theory, the Tribune of the Plebs brought representation for the common citizen. In practice, such powers in the hands of demagogues, would bring about the death of the Republic.

By the 5th century, the people of Gaul (modern-day France, parts of Belgium, western Germany and northern Italy) migrated south to the Mediterranean coast. Disaster struck in 390BC as war bands of the Gallic Chieftain Brennus swept out of the north, easily defeating Roman defenses at the river Allia and capturing and sacking much of Rome, itself.

The sack of Rome doesn’t seem to have been the disaster, described in Roman legend. Little archeological evidence exists to support the idea of a sustained sack and burning of the city. Very possibly, Brennus and his band were headed south to sign on as mercenaries, in service to Dionysius of Syracuse.

Maybe all they wanted was the sort of plunder easily carried away. Like the gold they were paid to get out of town which they happily did, following a 7-month siege.

There followed forty years of hard fighting in Latium and Etruria to restore the power of Rome. Be that as it may, the Gallic bogey man would live on in the Roman psyche.

The Latin war of 340-338BC ended in victory for the Republic, placing Rome in control of central Italy. The next three decades saw the conquest and colonization of the Samnites to the north and the Greek principalities, to the south. By 275BC, Rome was master of all Italy.

Meanwhile, a child was born in Carthage some 1,500 miles to the south, who would rock the Roman world. His name was Hamilcar Barca.

The 3rd century BC was a time of endless military campaign for the Roman Republic, no fewer than 68 of them.

Outward expansion inevitably brought the Republic into conflict with the other major Mediterranean power of the age, the ancient Phoenician seafaring civilization long since settled in north Africa, called Carthage.

Hamilcar Barca was a great general in the first of three wars between Rome and Carthage, the longest continuous conflict and the greatest naval war, of antiquity. The 1st Punic War went badly for Carthage and ended on harsh terms, including the loss of that famous navy. Hamilcar died in 228BC most likely drowning in the Jucar River but he lived on in a way, in the form of the Roman’s worst nightmare – Hamilcar’s sons sworn to eternal hate for Rome, Hasdrubal, Mago and possibly the greatest field commander in history, the general Hannibal.

In 218BC, Hannibal crossed into hostile Gaul at the head of 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and 37 war elephants. His crossing of the Alps that winter is one of the great feats of military history, costing almost half of his force before entering Italy that December.

The first of several major battles took place on December 18, 218BC, on the banks of the Trebia River. The army of Hannibal was near invincible, defeating Roman legions in one major engagement after another. Trebia, Lake Trasimene, Cannae: where Hannibal annihilated nearly down to the man, the largest Roman army, ever assembled. For sixteen years, Hannibal’s Carthaginians were virtually unbeatable, devastating the Italian countryside as Rome drafted one army after another only to see them crushed, yet again. Meanwhile, Carthage itself was politically divided. Hannibal never did receive any significant support from home. In the end, he had to leave Italy to defend his homeland in North Africa.

Hannibal was soundly defeated by his own tactics on October 19, 202BC at the Battle of Zama, ending the second Punic war under humiliating terms for Carthage.

By the 1st century BC, Roman power all but encircled the Mediterranean, from modern-day Spain to Syria, from Normandy to North Africa.

Such diverse, conquered peoples proved ever more difficult to govern as troops were stationed literally everywhere, ready to use force, if necessary. In Rome itself, citizens suffered under a government that always seemed to be looking, elsewhere. Roman made goods and produce became ever more expensive as locals found themselves unable to compete, with the provinces. Many migrated to the city where, increasingly, those in public service sought to placate the masses with handouts, and lavish entertainments.

In the late first and early second centuries (AD), the Roman poet Juvenal spoke of the period in his Satires, of a population no longer dedicated to the sacred birthright of public service, of civic engagement, preferring instead panem et circenses. Bread and circuses.

In the end, the Republic died by its own hand, a victim of internal politics.

In the middle years of the Republic, legionaries were required to serve out entire campaigns, regardless of length. Larger homesteads could always count on the labor of slaves while smaller farms were left in the hands of wives and children. These often went bankrupt, properties bought cheaply by an increasingly wealthy and avaricious, upper class.

According to Plutarch, “[W]hen Tiberius on his way to Numantia passed through Etruria and found the country almost depopulated and its husbandmen and shepherds imported barbarian slaves, he first conceived the policy which was to be the source of countless ills to himself and to his brother.”

Tiberius and his brother were the Gracchus brothers, important populist politicians of the late Republic. Tiberius, a hero of the 3rd Punic war, instituted reforms redistributing lands, back to the poor. Tiberius became a hero to the poorer classes and hated by the wealthy, so much so that he and 300 supporters were beaten to death with stones and clubs, in 132BC.

The Senate attempted to placate the Plebs by enforcing Gracchus’ land reforms but, ten years later, Tiberius’ younger brother and heir to his populist politics Gaius, would share the fate of his brother.

The Gracchi were gone but the animus between Populares and Optimates, had never been greater.

The first of several civil wars began in 88BC with a struggle for power between two men.

Elected Consul an unprecedented seven times, Gaius Marius implemented military reforms, transforming the loyalty of the soldiery from the republic, to their commander. Lucius Cornelius Sulla was the ambitious son of a Patrician family.

Outmaneuvered by Marius for supreme command of the 1st war against King Mithradates of Pontus (eastern Turkey), Sulla gathered his allies and marched under arms, against Rome. It was an unprecedented act of hostility duplicated by Marius himself and his allies, on Sulla’s return to Pontus. The murderous “reforms” of Marius and his Populares paled in comparison to the second return of Sulla and his Optimates.

Imagine finding your name on a list published by your government, knowing that meant you were “proscribed”. Whosoever of your fellow citizens who found and killed you, was entitled to your worldly possessions. The names of as many 4,700 “enemies of the state” were nailed to the wall of the Roman Forum during the “proscriptions” of the Dictator Sulla.

Forty years later, a General’s marching on Rome at the head of an army was still an act of war, though hardly “unprecedented”. With the words “the die is cast”, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon river on January 10, 49BC, igniting another civil war. Caesar emerged victorious in early 44BC to be appointed, “Dictator for Life”. The very idea was an affront to traditional Roman sensibilities. Caesar was murdered by a cabal of Senators on March 15. The “Ides of March“.

Caesar’s killers believed they were saving the Republic but their actions, had the opposite effect. The assassination sparked a period of civil war and political instability from which Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, emerged victorious over Marc Antony and his Greek princess ally turned Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra.

Octavian was crowned the first emperor of Rome on January 16, 27BC and given the honorific title, “Augustus”. The Republic was dead. The era of Empire, had begun.

December 11, 1970 A Green Revolution

“The green revolution has an entirely different meaning to most people in the affluent nations of the privileged world than to those in the developing nations of the forgotten world.” – Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution


King Leopold II. Josef Stalin. Adolf Hitler. Pol Pot. Idi Amin. All too often, history is measured in terms of the monsters. The ten worst dictators of the last century-and-a-half account for the loss of nearly 150 million lives. Most of us remember their names. Most of them.

But who remembers the name of the man who Saved the lives of SEVEN times the number, of those destroyed by this whole Parade of Horribles, put together?

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We live in a time and place where the National Institutes of Health (NIH) can report “The U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and accordingly has high obesity rates; one-third of the population has obesity plus another third is overweight”.

It wasn’t always so. In 1820, 94% of the world’s population lived in “absolute poverty.” American economic historian and scientist Robert Fogel, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics, wrote: “Individuals in the bottom 20% of the caloric distributions of France and England near the end of the eighteenth century, lacked the energy for sustained work and were effectively excluded from the labor force.”

For the modern mind, it’s difficult to embrace the notion of “food insecurity”.  We’re not talking about what’s in the fridge. This is the problem of acute malnutrition, of epidemic starvation, of cyclical famine and massive increases in mortality due to starvation and hunger-induced disease.

Nels Olson Borlaug once told his grandson Norman, “You’re wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on.” An Iowa farm kid educated during the Great Depression, that same young man periodically put his studies on hold, in order to earn money.

He was Norman Ernest Borlaug. As a Civilian Conservation Corps leader working with unemployed people on CCC projects, many of his co-workers faced persistent and real, hunger. He later recalled, “I saw how food changed them … All of this left scars on me”.

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Borlaug earned his Bachelor of Science in Forestry, in 1937. Nearing the end of his undergraduate education, he attended a lecture by Professor Elvin Charles Stakman discussing plant rust disease, a parasitic fungus which feeds on phytonutrients in wheat, oats, and barley crops.

Stakman was exploring special breeding methods, resulting in rust-resistant plants. The research greatly interested Borlaug, who later enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study plant pathology, under Stakman. Borlaug earned a Master of Science degree in 1940 and a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics, in 1942.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Borlaug attempted to enlist. His application was rejected. Uncle Sam had other plans for Norman Borlaug. He was put to work in a lab, doing research for the United States armed forces.

Between 1939 and ’41, Mexican farmers suffered major crop failures due to stem rust. In July 1944, Borlaug declined an offer to double his salary, traveling instead to Mexico City where he headed a new program focusing on soil development, maize and wheat production, and plant pathology.

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“Pure line” (genotypically identical) plant varieties possess only one to a handful of disease-resistance genes. Random mutations of rusts and other plant diseases overcome pure line survival strategies, resulting in crop failures. “Multi-line” plant breeding involves back-crossing and hybridizing plant varieties, transferring multiple disease-resistance genes into recurrent parents.

In the first ten years Borlaug worked for the Mexican agricultural program, he and his team made over 6,000 individual crossings of wheat. Mexico transformed from a net-importer of food, to a net exporter.

In the early sixties, Borlaug’s dwarf spring wheat strains went out for multi-location testing around the world, in a program administered by the US Department of Agriculture. In March 1963, Borlaug himself traveled to India with Dr. Robert Glenn Anderson, along with 220-pounds of seed from four of the most promising strains.

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The Indian subcontinent experienced minor famine and starvation at this time, limited only by the US’ shipping 1/5th of its wheat production into the region in 1966 – ’67. Despite resistance from Indian and Pakistani bureaucracies, Borlaug imported 550 tons of seeds.

American biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote in his 1968 bestselling book The Population Bomb: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over … In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” He went on: “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971…India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.”

The man could not have been more comprehensively wrong.

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Borlaug’s initial yields were higher than any other crop, ever harvested in South Asia. Countries from Pakistan to India to Turkey imported 80,000 tons and more of seeds. By the time Ehrlich’s book released in 1968, massive crop yields had substituted famine and starvation, with a host of new problems. Like labor shortages at harvest and insufficient quantities of bullock carts, to haul it all to the threshing floor. Jute bags were needed along with trucks, rail cars and grain storage facilities. Local governments even closed school buildings, to use them for grain storage.

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In three years, the world increase in cereal-grain production was nothing short of spectacular. United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Director William Gaud called it, a “Green Revolution”.   Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1970, protesting that he himself was but “one member of a vast team made up of many organizations, officials, thousands of scientists, and millions of farmers – mostly small and humble…”

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Norman Borlaug works with Chinese agricultural leaders, 1974

As a newly crowned Nobel Laureate, Borlaug said in a December 11 lecture before the Rockefeller foundation: “[T]he first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.”

With mass starvation or widespread deforestation being the only historic alternatives, the “Borlaug Hypothesis” introduced a third option, that of increasing yields on existing farmland.  The work however, was not without critics. Environmentalists criticized what they saw as large-scale monoculture, in nations previously reliant on subsistence farming. Critics railed against “agribusiness” and the building of roads through what had once been wilderness.

David Seckler, Director General of the International Water Management Institute said “The environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa.”

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Norman Borlaug, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1970

The Rockefeller and Ford foundations withdrew funding, along with the World Bank. Warm and well fed environmentalist-types congratulated themselves on “success”, as the Ethiopian famine of 1983-’85 killed over 400,000. Millions more were left destitute, on the brink of starvation.

Borlaug shot back, “[S]ome of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.

Borlaug became involved in Africa at the invitation of Ryoichi Sasakawa, chairman of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation, who wondered why methods used so successfully in Asia, were not being employed in Africa. Since that time, the Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) has trained over 8 million farmers in SAA farming techniques. Maize crops developed in African countries have tripled along with increased yields of wheat, sorghum, cassava, and cowpeas.

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When Ehrlich released his book in 1968, the world population stood at 3.53 billion. Today, that number is more like 7.8 billion and, when we hear about starvation, such disasters are almost exclusively, man-made. The American magician and entertainer Penn Jillette once described Norman Borlaug as “The greatest human being who ever lived…and you’ve probably never heard of him.”

Let that be the answer to the man’s smug and well-fed critics.

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December 8, 1941 A Declaration of War

World War 2 was a time of few restrictions on submarine warfare. Belligerents attacked military and merchant vessels alike with prodigious loss of civilian life, but WW1 didn’t start out that way.

In the early months of the “Great War”, the British Royal Navy imposed a surface blockade on the German high seas fleet.  Even food was treated as a “contraband of war”,  a measure widely regarded as an attempt to starve the German population.   With good reason.  One academic study performed ten years after the war, put the death toll by starvation at 424,000 in Germany alone. The German undersea fleet responded with a  blockade of the British home islands, a devastating measure carried out against an island adversary dependent on massive levels of imports.

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Sinking of the Linda Blanche out of Liverpoole, by Willy Stöwer

World War 2 was a time of few restrictions on submarine warfare.  Belligerents attacked military and merchant vessels alike with prodigious loss of civilian life, but WW1 didn’t start out that way.

Wary of antagonizing neutral opinion, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg argued against a “shoot without warning”policy but, strict adherence to maritime prize rules risked U-Boats and crews alike.  By early 1915, Germany declared the waters surrounding the British home Isles a war zone where even the vessels of neutral nations were at risk of being sunk.

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“Q-Ship with gun. The hidden gun emerges as the cover and sides, masquerading as a deck structure, are dropped. From “Q” Boat Adventures: The Exploits of the Famous Mystery Ships by a “Q” Boat Commander, by Harold Auten, published by Herbert Jenkins Ltd” – Hat Tip HistoricEngland.org.uk

Desperate to find an effective countermeasure to the German “Unterseeboot”, Great Britain introduced heavily armed merchant ships with concealed weaponry in 1915, phony merchantmen designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks. Britain called these secret countermeasures “Q-ships”, after their home base in Queenstown, in Ireland.

German sailors called them U-Boot-Fälle. “U-boat traps”.

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Notices taken out in the New York Times and others, specifically warned the Lusitania was vulnerable to attack

The “unprovoked” sinking of noncombatant vessels, including the famous Lusitania in which 1,198 passengers lost their lives, became a primary justification for war.  The German Empire, for her part, insisted that many of these vessels carried munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields.

Underwater, the submarines of WWI were slow and blind, on the surface, vulnerable to attack.  In 1916, German policy vacillated between strict adherence to prize rules and unrestricted submarine warfare.  It was a Hobbesian choice. The first put their own people and vessels at extreme risk, the second threatened to bring neutrals like the United States and Brazil,  into the war.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson won re-election with the slogan “He kept us out of war”: a conflict begun in Europe, two years earlier.

In a January 31, 1917 memorandum from German Ambassador Count Johann von Bernstorff to American Secretary of State Robert Lansing, the Ambassador stated that “sea traffic will be stopped with every available weapon and without further notice”, effective the following day. The German government was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.

Anticipating this resumption and expecting the decision to draw the United States into the war, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann delivered a message to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt. The telegram instructed Ambassador Eckardt that, if the United States seemed likely to enter the war, he was to approach the Mexican Government with a proposal for military alliance, promising “lost territory” in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the United States.

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona…”. Signed, ZIMMERMANN

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The “Zimmermann Telegram” was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence and revealed to the American government on February 24. The contents of the message outraged American public opinion and helped generate support for the United States’ declaration of war.

In the end, the German response to anticipated US action, brought about the very action it was trying to avoid.

President Woodrow Wilson delivered his war message to a joint session of Congress on April 2, stating that a declaration of war on Imperial Germany would make the world “Safe for Democracy”. Congress voted to support American entry into the war on April 6, 1917. The “Great War”, the “War to end all Wars”, had become a World War.

At the time, a secondary explosion within the hull of RMS Lusitania caused many to believe the liner had been struck by a second torpedo.  In 1968, American businessman Gregg Bemis purchased the wreck of the Lusitania for $2,400, from the Liverpool & London War Risks Insurance Association.   In 2007 the Irish government granted Bemis a five-year license to conduct limited excavations at the site.

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Twelve miles off the Irish coast and 300-feet down, a dive was conducted on the wreck in 2008.   Remote submersible operators discovered some 4 million rounds of Remington .303 ammunition in the hold, proof of the German claim that Lusitania was, in fact, a legitimate target under international rules of war.  The UK Daily Mail quoted Bemis:  “There were literally tons and tons of stuff stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds that were dubiously marked cheese, butter and oysters’”.

American historian, author and journalist Wade Hampton Sides accompanied the expedition.  “They are bullets that were expressly manufactured to kill Germans in World War I” he said, “bullets that British officials in Whitehall, and American officials in Washington, have long denied were aboard the Lusitania.‘”

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Montana Republican Jeannette Pickering Rankin, a life-long pacifist and the first woman elected to the United States Congress, would be one of only fifty votes against entering WWI.  Congresswoman Rankin was elected to a second and non-consecutive term in 1940. Just in time to be the only vote against entering World War 2, in response to President Franklin Delano’s address to a joint session of Congress, December 8, 1941.

Tally sheet for the congressional declaration of war on Japan, December 8, 1941