Saturday, November 11, 2017

Armistice Day, 2017

I've already managed my World War I post this week, getting the Russians in there along with Third Ypres. But today is Armistice Day and it is good to remember it, and to remember why this day was remembered as a day to bring abut the end of war. The horrors of Passchendaele sum up the horrors of WWI quite succinctly, and those horrors are a distillation of the horrors of all wars. We should keep it in mind, and we should try to stop this stuff from happening.

Here is a documentary about the battle of Passchendaele:

And a bit of Iron Maiden, to mark the time:

Friday, November 10, 2017

Shaking the World

Happy Friday again, the only day I seem to post - but 1 is better than none.

A strange week, this one: November 7-8 marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution - the Soviet Revolution, that brought Lenin to power. I should have posted something, but I am lazy and careless - but what is stranger is that I have seen almost nothing about it anywhere. Maybe it isn't American history; maybe the Soviets are well out of fashion - but this was one of the most important events of the 20th century - top, you know - 2 maybe - and you would think it would be talked about. Maybe it was and I haven't seen it - the news this week has been busy, with another mass shooting, an election that saw decisive Democratic victories around the country, another celebrity caught whacking off in front of strangers, and what might be the least surprising revelation of all time - sometimes judge Roy Moore, right wing, racist, homophobic god bothering scofflaw running for senate in Alabama, turns out to also be a pedophile, dating 17 year olds and making lewd passes as 14 year olds. So poor old Lenin and Trotsky and co. had a lot of competition this week.

That doesn't mean they should get a shout out. The Russian Revolution is, well - difficult. There's no denying the wickedness of the Tsar's regime, or its incompetence; there's no denying that WWI gutted Russia; there's not much likelihood that the government could have changed into something else without a revolution of some kind. But Revolutions never really work out - not in the short term, usually not in the medium term. The February Revolution held some promise, but no one was able to form a stable government, the war gutted the provisional governments as much as it gutted the Tsar's government - and it failed. And the Bolsheviks took over and - weren't willing to accept anything less than total victory, so slowly moved to banning all political opposition, crushing all dissent - which then sparked civil war, foreign invasions, massive and horrible political reprisals, devastating famine....

That is usually the result of revolution: war, death, devastation, famine and disease,and tyranny at the end. But among their horrors, sometimes governments emerge with some breathing room, with the space to get better.Could the Russian Revolution have done so? I am not sure what I think about the Russian revolution - the horrors of the revolution and civil war are horrors of war and revolution; it is more fruitful to ask what they led to. I don't know: there are signs, in the 1920s, that Lenin and some of the others in the government might have been willing to move toward a more just society - there is no denying that the revolution unleashed a torrent of cultural change, artistic change, which was very exciting. But that only lasted a couple years - and Stalin's version of the revolution codified and solidified the absolute worst possible elements of the revolution. He brought out the absolute worst possible outcome for the revolution. (As did Mao, in the 1950s; as did Pol Pot, for example.)

So what is the Russian Revolution? The hope of the overthrow of the Tsar? the promise of the people rising to create a new kind of government in November 1917? (That's what China Mieville emphasizes in October.) Or the fall into civil war and terror in 1918? The tyranny and cruelty of the 20s? or the almost immeasurable sense of possibility it created? Or both? Or the sheer (and wildly self-destructive) horror of Stalinism? The exhilaration of Eisenstein's October is real - the film creates it, of course, but you sense the exhilaration of the moment itself, the hope, the sense of liberation and empowerment. I can see the appeal. Though I am too much a cynic, or maybe a historian, not to know how this stuff ends. How all of them end: in blood and devastation, the guillotine, the ax, in a decade long war with Iraq. Or in retreat - the old guard takes over - or the new guard proves to be just like the old guard, only more racist and more self-righteous. (You thought I forgot the America revolution, didn't you!) I don't want any revolutions around me, thank you very much. I get worried when people start talking about them.

Though I know that most of them, a generation or so down the road, ended up making the world a better place. The world is better for the English Revolution, the French Revolution, certainly the the American Civil War - and it's probably better for the Russian Revolution. Just that - sacrificing a couple generations for the sake of the future seems like a sub-optimal route to a better world...

Meanwhile, today marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Third Battle of Ypres, aka, the Battle of Passchendaele, another in the gruesome series of pointless bloodbaths that marked that war, especially on the western front. I suppose in the end, it's impossible to say that this one was more or less pointless than any of the others - though by 1917, it's hard to see what anyone had in mind in these exercises. I suppose it is true that one of the things the Allies had in mind was distracting Germans from the eastern front, where Russia's first revolution had cast the war effort into serious doubt. Indeed, Lenin and company mounted their revolution largely on the platform of getting out of the war for good. (Maybe because Lenin was bankrolled by the Germans, but that seems more like opportunism on both sides - the Germans were surely not communists.) In any case, Passchendaele didn't keep the Russians in the war, so...

I can't find any ambiguity in World War I: there is no greater unambiguous disaster in modern history. World War II! you say - but that damned thing continued with barely an interruption the first one. The horrors of the Russian Revolution would not have happened without the Great War - who knows what would have become of that country, but it's probably nothing like the bloodbath it was. And Passchendaele? Individual battles in the first world war are mind-boggling affairs, endless repetitions of what didn't work 6 months ago, tweaked with that one thing that did kind of work for a day or so 6 months ago.... When it changed, it changed because of sheer numbers and some real innovation, first by the Germans, then by the Allies (taking advantage of the German's complete collapse.) Everyone finally got bled out, I guess. Passchendaele contributed to the bleeding, of course, but that doesn't recommend it. It did help establish one of the dominant images of the Great War: if the Somme is the ultimate in the Doomed Charge image, Passchendaele is the ultimate in the Flooded Trench image, fought as it was in the wetlands of Belgium, in a very rainy summer and autumn. But there is nothing else there - heroism, but what good is that, when it's put to no end? There is no hope to be lost at Passchendaele, no missed opportunities - nothing but death, and there was never going to be anything but death there.

World War I is a very depressing subject to care about.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Friday Miscellany and Music

Hello again, Friday. Nice to see that the World Series turned out to be as entertaining as you could hope. I wish they could have finished some of those games a bit quicker - how I long for the days of dueling 7 inning starters! I think the Dodgers might have hurt themselves, over the series - taking out starters before they were really starting to lose meant they wee using most of their pen almost every single day. It started to show. The Astros had some of the same problem, but got around them by putting starters in to relieve, and letting them go for 3 or 4 innings. (Something of a trend: starters pitching better in relief than as starters - from the Red Sox, getting great outings from Price and Sale, to several Astros, to Kershaw and Wood when it was all too late for the Dodgers...) Anyway. This was a good one.

And now? I've been chipping away at Ken Burns' Vietnam war series - almost too depressing to watch more than an episode a week... Interesting to be reminded that yesterday, 11/2, was the 49th anniversary of the day Saigon pulled out of the Paris peace talks at the urging of Tricky Dick and company. 49 years since Nixon committed treason to get elected president. Meanwhile, every day in the news, we're reminded it's been a good deal less than 49 years since Trump committed treason to get elected... That and watching the Democrats continue to try to tear themselves apart - is it 1968? It is horrible watching Democrats continue to try to undo the results of last year's primaries, while the Republicans are trying to undo the results of the Civil War...

But that is all the politics I can stand for today.

So - Friday - some music. Maybe 1968, huh? Kind of cool to hear the Velvet Underground in the middle of the 1968 episode of the Vietnam War - this one, in fact,shown here with some nifty animations:

Meanwhile the Beatles:

And the Stones, taking on the political world of the time: