WHO SHOT THE ALBATROSS?
Things were simpler in the early days of our Republic:
In Adam's Fall
We sinnèd all, it said on the first page of The New England Primer in which little children learned their alphabet on their first day of school..
Adam's fall was, in the 17th century, a historical event with a historical date - October 24 4004 BC, according to the calculations of James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh. At the start of that day, Adam and Eve the product of his rib, who comprised the whole human population on Earth, were leading happy carefree lives, naked and unashamed, in a paradise, the Garden of Eden. And then along came a wily four-legged creature to which Adam had the day before fixed the name of Snake, and the Snake talked Eve who talked Adam into eating a fruit from a tree they had been instructed never to touch. And the world has been out of whack ever since.
The story as told in the second and third chapters of the Book of Genesis is by no means clear and consistent, it lies open to many interpretations which have provided matter for theological debate over many centuries, in many of which you could be burned at the stake for espousing the wrong interpretation. But the western world has generally accepted Saint Augustine's fifth century AD analysis as definitive: there had been an Original Sin committed by Adam in the Garden of Eden, and from it sprouted all our woe.
In our cynical secular times, the whole story has come to be more or less openly dismissed as a Mesopotamian folktale on the order of Jack and Jill went up the hill, to which ecclesiastical authorities tacked on a moral aimed at establishing the first rule of theology, which is that there is a Boss upstairs in the Executive Suite and you will do what the Boss says if you know what is good for you.
Successful as it may have been in Saint Augustine's day, to modern ears it rings dissonant and hopelessly out of date. God walking in his garden like an elderly pasha to enjoy a cool breeze in the evening seems anachronistic in an air-conditioned age. And the punishments he imposed on the wretched conspirators who went with poaching in his garden have lost much of their original fearfulness. Eve and her daughters were condemned to bring forth their children in sorrow till the end of time, but the discovery of anaesthetics in America in the mid nineteenth century has led to an immense decrease in that sorrow. They were also condemned to be ruled by their husbands, but in the last two hundred years that rule has been attenuated if not abolished in all but the most backward countries. And at the same time advances in labor-saving machinery and electronics have allowed millions of men to earn enough to feed themselves with all the bread they want without a drop of sweat. Snakes it is true, who were condemned to lose their legs and crawl around in the dirt on their bellies, still crawl on their bellies, but snakes play a constantly decreasing part in the lives of most human beings today.
And the sentence passed on Adam seems outrageously unfair, it would never survive a review by a modern Court of Appeals. How could any judge outside the courts of the Taliban condemn to death a newborn babe - Adam was two days old at the time of his misdeed, according to the most authoritative interpretations of the text -- of a wilful evil act when he had never in his entire life before that act been told that there exist such things as Good and Evil?
Still, we need Adam. Or, preferably, some one more up to date, our date, to fill his place.
Since the beginning of recorded history, people everywhere seem to have felt more or less strongly that things, here and now, are in a bad way, a hopeless mess, everything stinks. Once everything was better, once there was an age when the living was easy and people were living in happy community with one another. So many golden ages glisten in the past, depending on what spectacles we choose to put on: Fifth-century Athens, the second-century Silver Age "when a pagan gentleman reigned in Rome," Thirteenth-century cathedral-building Europe, Renaissance Italy, Elizabethan England, "proud, Castillian, spiritual, mythical and chivalrous [I am quoting the words of a member of General Franco's brain trust] Sixteenth-century Spain," the Old Gone-with-the-Wind South, the Old John-Wayne West, the Days Before America Lost its Innocence. Some have tried to place this golden age in our mothers' wombs, but Samuel Beckett, the only man I have known to claim a clear memory of life there, reported that it was a nasty place. In any case, a glance at the history books will show that all those golden ages of the past nourished just as much misery and suffering and cruelty and injustice and stupidity as any that succeeded them. Nevertheless, we all go on yearning for the good old days that are lost forever, and naturally we want to know why. We are not vindictive, but we insist that someone must take the blame.(And we resolutely put out of our minds the idea that that someone might be us..)
It always has to be some one, some person. Academic historians may assure us that we are in the grip of vast impersonal forces, continental drifts, global warmings and coolings, the Materialist Dialectic, Viconian Cycles, the Law of Entropy, the Law of Supply and Demand, and whatnot, but we know that we know better. We all can testify that the course of our own lives has more than once been drastically changed, sometimes for better more often for worse, by some seemingly chance encounter with someone we had ever seen before. And we all know that the history of nations and of the world has been taken in unexpected directions by unexpected individuals appearing out of nowhere. "How different the world had been," said Charles Doughty of the prophet Mohammed, "had the tongue not wagged, of this mischievous Ishmaelite.".
If there had been a meteorologist on board., he could have told the shipmates of the Ancient Mariner that it was gigantic impersonal movements of air and water masses in cyclical weather patterns like the El Niño winds which had got them stranded in midocean without a drop to drink. But they would have paid no attention to all that theoretical stuff, they knew it was all the fault of that one man, the Ancient Mariner, whom they had seen with their own eyes picking up his crossbow on a day much like any other day and making that fatal shot that killed the albatross. And it was around his neck that they hung the dead bird to mark him out forever as an object of scorn and loathing.
And so it has been since the beginning of recorded time..
The ancient Persians could hang their albatross around their own version of Adam-and-Eve: a primal couple of Mashye and Mashyane who were deluded by Ahriman the spirit of Evil into believing that he, Ahriman, was the creator of the world and into sacrificing an ox sacred to Mazda, the true Creator, as result of which they gained knowledge, founded civilization and brought strife, hatred, disease, poverty and death into the world.
The Pieroa Indians in the Amazon rain forest blamed the god who went stumbling one day through what was then an ecologically virgin rain forest, munching steadily on psychedelic mushrooms till he was so stoned that he created the dreadful world as we know it without having the slightest idea of what he was doing.
A modernized version of this scenario was provided by Jung in his Answer to Job, in which he solves the insoluble age-old theological problem of how a good God could create an evil world by demonstrating that God, like any of the Jungian patients in Zurich, has a dark side or Shadow in the form of an unconscious self which made him capable of committing abominable cruelties without his being aware of it until he was enlightened by a series of sages like Job and the prophet Ezekiel and Carl Gustav Jung..
Another psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, who had no room for God on his radar screen, put the blame (in his classic work Totem and Taboo) on a gang of prehistoric brothers who grew tired of seeing their phallocratic father monopolize all the womenfolk in the family and one day got together to gang up on the vile old man and murder him and then ceremoniously eat him, "a memorable criminal act with which so many things began, social organization, moral restrictions and religion." in short everything which inhibits us and makes us unhappy.
The ancient Greeks blamed Pandora, the most beautiful and most airheaded woman of her day who couldn't resist opening the jar which her husband Epimetheus had instructed her to leave strictly alone because it was a wedding present from Zeus the Father and Men , whose conscious or unconscious intentions he quite properly distrusted. And when she opened ir anyway in her flighty feminine way, out flew Old Age, Sickness, Insanity, Vice, Passion and all the other things that have troubled us ever since.
Fundamentalist vegetarians have put the blame on the first ape-man, or ape-woman, perhaps it was Lucy herself, who came down from the trees a couple of million years ago, ending the happy harmonious banana-eating rain-forest way of life, and wandered out on the savannahs where he, or she, developed a taste for eating mice and rabbits and all the other forms of meat which have not only caused endless gastric troubles for all succeeding humans (whose bowels were never designed for digesting flesh), but also developed in them a hereditary taste for physical aggression, a blood lust which has led to endless wars and now in the twenty-first century to the threshold of universal annihilation.
Fundamentalist environmentalists have traced the blame back to the first Neolithic Revolutionist (the ancestor of today's Globalists) who, an indeterminate number of millennia ago, rafted a herd of goats across the Bosporus, turning these amiable inhabitants of the semi-arid Middle East into ravening monsters which in the course of time wiped out the magnificent primeval forests of oak and ash and beech and birch which once covered Europe from end to end, to be replaced over miserable millennia by London, Paris, Rome, filling stations, nuclear power plants, yacht harbors and all the other cesspools of our time.
Professor William F.Ruddiman of the University of Virginia has put the blame on the unknown pioneer of the Neolithic Revolution who some time around 5000 BC first gouged the flesh of Mother Earth with a pointed stick to plant seeds in it, leading to the worldwide spread of agriculture, leading to the destruction of countless billions of trees, leading to the massive pumping of carbon dioxide (from trees set on fire or from rotting stumps of trees cut down) into the atmosphere, leading to the famous greenhouse effect and global warming which are now threatening to destroy us.
Ancient Roman historians, watching the rotting away all around them of the ancient virile values of their founding fathers, and the consequent decline and fall of their Empire, had a number of candidates to hang the albatross on; one of them was whichever Consul it was who after winning a profitable little war in Asia Minor in the year 204 BC, brought back with other booty a statue of the Great Mother of the Gods (the Ashtoreth of the Bible, the Anna Livia Plurabelle of James Joyce) and set it up in the Forum..That year the harvests in central Italy were the richest in history, giving a great boost to the cult of this wonder-working goddess and in turn opening the door to wave after wave of the mystical miasmal mother-loving Middle-Eastern religions which would eventually sap the virility of Roman warriors and make them incapable of defending their country against hoodlum machos like the Huns, the Goths, the Vandals, the Anglo-Saxons.
An alternative villain was Cato the Censor, uncompromising defender of traditional Roman values, and godfather of the Cato Institute which is trying today to do the same thing for American values, who, by dint of finishing every speech in the Senate with the thundering words Delenda est Carthago, Carthage must be destroyed, finally persuaded his colleagues to declare the Third Punic War. The first two Punic Wars had ended with the destruction of the Carthaginian empire, but Carthage itself was allowed to survive, and in return for its pledge to make war no more, Rome swore solemnly by the immortal gods never to attack it. The Carthaginians then devoted all their cosiderable energy and talents into making money in the Mediterranean free trade zone, too much money for the tastes of Cato and the other senators who proceeded to wipe Carthage more off the map and happily divide the spoils of war. The immortal gods were less pleased, and condemned Rome to grow ever richer and more corrupt, and decline and fall.
Such scenarios have been used by religious or political authorities for very serious patriotic or religious purposes, and served those purposes more or less well in their respective days. But they have all proved insufficient, they are too distant, too general, we need some one closer to us, some one who can stir our hearts. It is hard to work up passionate anger against poor old Adam and Pandora - what was the last time you blamed either of them for something wicked which you yourself had done or had been done to you by your spouse or your neighbor? They may even to our sentimental eyes appear more sinned against than sinning, and in any case are so many thousands of generations removed, it is hard to connect them to the things we have seen with our own eyes in our own time, on our own television sets, perpetrated by people like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, al-Qaeda, the Elders of Zion, the eastern liberal media, the neocons in the White House, the National Rifle Association, the World Trade Organization, the Fox News Network.
Even these may seem a little too generalized, a little too distant, figures of evil to serve our purpose. Our spiritual advisers may tell us to be concerned about the fate of all mankind through all the endless aeons of history, but we remain hopelessly parochial, we may shed an honest tear or two for the victims of Genghis Khan or Torquemada, but we are moved to deep grief and fury only by what has gone wrong in our own lives, or the lives of our ancestors, our people, our nation.
And we want to pinpoint the time, the place, the undoubted deed - our own fruit eaten in Eden, our own albatross slain in southern seas. It is all very well for a poet like Melville to blame a "cosmic jest or anarch blunder" for the separation of mankind into two incompatible sexes which has led to such unending woe from Adam's time to our own. We demand something more specific, like the year 1610, "a fatal date," says the French historian Michelet, "which opens the way for Man and Woman to diverge." It was, h explains, the year Basque sailors brought back tobacco from the newly discovered New World and began to shamelessly blow puffs of the stuff into their wives' faces. As the wives later explained to the tribunal in Bayonne, the primordial harmony between the sexes had been broken and they had no alternative but to turn to witchcraft. "Better the Devil's behind than the our husbands's mouths," they told the judges in their blunt Basque way, and, as we all know, things have never been the same since.
Some Catholic scholars put the fatal day a little earlier, in the reign of the extravagant Pope Sixtus IV in Rome (1471-1484) who gave orders to destroy the old-fashioned frescoes on the walls of the Vatican chapel now named Sistine in his honor, because he was determined to create the greatest work of piety and art in Christendom. For that he needed the services of the greatest and most expensive artists of the century, Michelangelo for one, and, lacking enough money to pay the bill, he sent out armies of agents to sell indulgences which would enable rich sinners to pay their way out of years of torment in Purgatory. And it was rage against this huckstering interpretation of sin and religion that led Luther to nail his theses to the church door and reduce the One True Faith to a chaos of bickering creeds.
Greek Orthodox theologians put the blame on Benedict VIII, Bishop of Rome in 1044 who added the word filioque ("and the son") to the Creed, plunging all the western Christian world into heresy and damnation from that day to this. Roman Catholic theologians, in rebuttal, put the blame on Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople(858), for rejecting filioque and thus leading to the schism of the Greek Church which led all of eastern Europe into the darkness and sin of the last one thousand and forty-six years. ..
Tne Irish for six hundred years put the blame for all their centuries of enslavement and degradation on the adulterous lusts of Queen Derbhorgaill of Breffni which led to armed conflcit between her lovers, one of whom appealed for help to the Sassenachs who came over in the year 1170 and destroyed Irish freedom.
The poet-philosopher Ezra Pound insisted that the fatal date was 1694, when the Bank of England was established by a scoundrel named John Paterson. Though on another occasion he insisted it was 1863 when America was sold to the Rothschilds.
Others, convinced that we are being undone by the pollution of our air and the impoverishment of our soil, look for the man who infected us with the deadly illusion that Mother Earth is our housemaid instead of the mistress of the house. Like James Watt who invented the steam engine in England in 1769; or George Stephenson who in 1825 used that engine to create the world's first steam locomotive which, according to the poet-philosopher Peter Viereck, turned a world of placid self-centered regions into a world of ferocious all-destroying empires; or Francois-Isaac de Rimas who invented the internal combustion engine in Switzerland in 1807; or Gottfried Daimler and Karl Benz who put such engines in the first practical automobiles, in Germany in 1895.
Native American sages pinpoint the beginning of the end at October12, 1492, when Christopher Columbus prematurely "discovered" America, turning over to tbe brutal bloody barbarians of Europe the happy hunting grounds which might have gone on developing civilizations in harmony with nature under clear blue skies.
Immigrant Americans have a rich collection of sinners to blame for what has happened to them.
Some put the blame on John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States, generally considered a voice of conservatism, but who in1803 performed the most radical official act in American history when he handed down the judgment in the case of Marbury v, Madison. It was only a small item in the newspapers of 1803. President Jefferson, who hated Marshall, was quite pleased with him on this occasion because his secretary of state, Madison, won the case. Neither Jefferson nor Madison no any one else noticed that there was a time bomb tucked away in the long legal argument of the decision: an assumption that the Supreme Court had the right to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional, In other words, as a later legal scholar would put it, the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is. Long after Marshall's's death, this would explode into a long series of decisions of the scope of Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade, which according to contemporary Jeffersonians like Patrick Buchanan have turned the country over to a gang of nine unelected black robed pyromaniacs.
I recall a military historian named Hoffman Nickerson who wrote books during the Second World War to prove that America was losing that conflict because of the rotting away of her moral fibre, a process in which a key date was the day in 1926 when the nation's course was set irrevocably downward on the road to socialism by a woman named Bella Moskowitz who talked Governor Alfred E Smith of New York into signing a Workmans Compensation Act.
A lady named Mrs. Ruppel who was my landlady in Genoa Nevada provided some fine tuning for this last theory when she told me that the fatal moment was the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, which turned the country over to Theodore Roosevelt, an enemy of the free-enterprise American way, just at the moment a convention of the Socialist Party in New York was crafting a platform providing for the transformation of America into a servile state, a platform which was to be carried out to the letter when Theodore's cousin Franklin was elected president and proceeded to turn a nation of self-reliant God-fearing freemen into an immoral mob of food stamp collectors.
Senator Trent Lott has more recently laid our woes to the account of the American voters who on Election Day in 1948 refused to send Strom Thurmond to the White House where he alone could have preserved the vitality of a republic solidly committed to law, order and segregation.
(As it happened, I spent the night before that election with a girl in New York City who as she sank back into sleep turned to me with a contented smile and said, "Think how wonderful it would be to take up tomorrow morning and turn on the radio and hear that Henry Wallace is President." Morning came and she said, "The American people will pay dearly for this." If she were alive today, she would surely insist that they already have.)
The political philosopher Gore Vidal believes the country was already lost in 1948, the deed was done the year before when the passage of Harry Truman's Internal Secuirty Act turned the United States into a police state.
On the other side of the Atlantic, defenders of Richard III, the English monarch so shamelessly maligned by St. Thomas More and William Shakespeare, hold that the fatal day was in 1583, when straight-backed Richard was hacked down by the minions of the usurper Richmond on Bosworth Field, all on account of the carelessness of the blacksmith who had shod his horse with a defective nail. Spoilsport researchers have exploded the horseshoe story, they call it an egregious piece of gossip, like the story of the geese whose after-hours honking woke up the Roman soldiers one night in 390 BC just in time to prevent their city from being wiped off the map by savage Gauls. And anyway, they say, it made no difference who won the battle of Bosworth, Richard and Richmond were one ball of wax, the history of England and the world would have gone on through the same triumphs and tragedies we read about in our books. But defenders of Richard counter that, nail or no nail, the fact remains that Richard was killed, either by the treachery of Sir William Stanley who was waiting on the sidelines of the battle to see who was coming out ahead, or by the bad eyesight of Sir William, who thought he was killing Richmond when he lunged at Richard. And Richmond did go on to become King Henry VII and found the Tudor dynasty, a pack of homicidal maniacs like Henry VIII, Bloody Mary, Elizabeth, who filled the land with blood and turmoil during most of the sixteenth century. This is the century generally taken as the dawn of modern times, and if peaceable commercial-minded Yorkist kings like Richard III had been running things, England might have grown many times richer and more powerful than she actually did, and without all that blood on her hands. And the whole world would be a much kinder and gentler place than the one we know today.
The reasoning here may be a little thin. A thicker and more convincing case might be made for the day in May of 1711, when John Blunt, Robert Knight, and the rest of the collection of swindlers and con men who made up the South Sea Company bribed a majority of the House of Commons into passing a bill authorizing the Company to issue 9,411,325 pounds worth of Company stock which could be acquired for government bonds at par. The ruling class of England saw in this a God-given chance to collect the immense dividends that were bound to flow from the immensely profitable exploitation of the immense resources of the South Seas. It rushed to give up its bonds and subscribe to the miracle stock, and would eventually lose its collective shirt when it turned out that the South Sea Company had no resources, no profits, no cash except what it could get by selling additional shares of its stock. This was not the first of the great booms-gone-bust which have enlivened financial history (there had been a Tulip Mania in Holland a few decades earlier), and in sheer size nothing comparable to the great Wall Street Crashes in our day, and historians generally have regarded the South Sea Bubble as a mere picturesque episode, a temporary stumble in the relentless climb of capitalism. But recent research suggests that the long-range damage it caused was incalculable. For the investors of Great Britain, once bitten twice shy, became profoundly suspicious of the newfangled institutions called Corporations, (Adam Smith strongly disapproved of them), and it was a long time before they would again agree to put substantial amounts of money in the hands of people they did not know personally. Superbly imaginative inventions, including the first mechanical piano and the first steam engine, were sprouting up in England at that time, the inventions that a couple of generations later would launch the Industrial Revolution and almost everything we take for granted in our daily life today. But the pocket-books of investors were sealed shut for that couple of generations, and history had to crawl when it should have been leaping.
Among those early-eighteenth-century inventions was a machine gun, patented by a Major Puckle, which would fire either round or square bullets, depending on whether the people it was firing on were Christians or heathens. If only, says an earnest English scholar of my acquaintance, the cash had been there to have this gun produced in the normal way of the marketplace, and it had been tested and taken up the British army, it would have made short work of the embattled farmers with their unreliable muskets at Lexington and Concord, and there would have been no successful American revolution. The French monarchy in turn would not have gone bankrupt winning the war for the Americans, there would have been no need to raise the cash by calling a meeting of the States General, the people who started the French Revolution, in 1789, indeed there would have been no French revolution nor any of all the other revolutions it spawned.. The penniless young officer Napoleon Bonaparte, with no future in the army, might have become a venture capitalist and made a fortune in land speculation in Louisiana. Slavery in the American colonies could have been peacefully ended by an Act of Parliament rather than the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century. Historical progress could have gone on all over the world at a slow gentlemanly eighteenth-century pace and we could all today be sleeping peacefully at night listening to the various televised descendants of that mechanical piano,
This is, of course, an English interpretation. From other national perspectives, other villains take center stage.
From the point of view of radical Nazi theorists, the road downward began on Christmas day in the year 800 AD when Pope Leo III, finding among the worshipers in Saint Peter's Karl King of the Franks whipped a gold crown out of a bag and put it on Karl's head, declaring that he was now the Roman Emperor. Karl, later to be known as Charlemagne, was an Austrasian Frank, what we would call nowadays a German, he spoke German, he exemplified all the warrior virtues of his German ancestors. The wily Italian Pope turned his noble mind with the gift of the crown, and later the minds of his successors the Holy Roman Emperors, to what turned out to be centuries of petty squabbles over the gewgaws of Italy and France and other nests of corruption, instead of following the manifest destiny of the German people. These so-called emperors never even succeeding in uniting the whole German people into a single state, much less go on to their appointed task of conquering the Slavs, the Hungarians, the Turks, the Persians, the Indians, the whole world, - a task which had to be left, after so many precious centuries had been lost, to Adolf Hitler, who tried hard, but Charlemagne had let him down.
French nationalist historians naturally dismiss this as typical Teutonic ranting. Charlemagne, they say, may have liked to listen to old German heroic ballads, but his great contribution to civilization was to have created the structures that would eventually underlie the Kingdom of France. France was the first of the nation states which rose out of the chaos of the Dark Ages and created the modern world, and from its central geographical position between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and its unique mixture of northern (Germanic) and southern (Roman) cultures was bound to occupy a dominant position in the western world, which is now coterminous with the whole world. The failure of the French state to live up to its mission has been ascribed to assorted figures, from King Charles the Simple to Voltaire, but it seems to me a likelier candidate is Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the ascetic monk who on a fateful day in 1145 preached a sermon to the chuckle-headed king Louis VII, in effect ordering him to start the Second Crusade. Louis dutifully went off to the East with and an army and his young wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had brought to him as her dowry provinces which doubled the size of his kingdom. He made a total mess of the Crusade, which ended in ignominious failure, and he also repudiated his wife for having yielded to the loose licentious ways of the Orient. She left, taking her provinces with her, and later handed them over to her new husband, the Count of Anjou, who later managed to get himself crowned king of England. The descendants of this couple would cause persistent trouble for the truncated kingdom of France, and their great-great-great-grandson Edward III tried to grab the throne of France for himself, starting the Hundred Years War. Though the French eventually won this war, it left them too exhausted to be able to carry through their appointed task of civilizing the world, a task which had to be left in the hands of semi-barbarous northerners like the English or the Germans.
One way or another, western civilization did take over the world. And then in the 20th century it made repeated efforts to commit suicide. When and where did the process start?
It was long believed by popes and philosophers alike that mere anarchy, to use Yeats's profound words, was loosed upon the world on the day in 1917 when the German Foreign Minister in Berlin signed the papers providing a sealed train to take Lenin and Trotsky and other revolutionary riffraff from their hiding-places in Switzerland across Germany, and eventually other transportation to take them to the Finland Station in Saint Petersburg where they would start the ball rolling for the revolution that would create the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and tear the world in two.
But that particular albatross has gone out of fashion. Nobody remembers the name of that Foreign Minister today, and there are already reports of schoolchildren asking their teachers, "What is a soviet union?"
From our vantage point of hindsight, we can see that what started the breakup of the relatively stable and prosperous hegemony of a few European powers over most of the world and inaugurated the convulsions of the twentieth century was not the coup d'état in Petersburg in 1917 but the outbreak in August 1914 of what amounted to a second Thirty Years War. It is common knowledge that the first shot in this war was fired by an inept Serbian hothead named Gavrilo Princip who assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. But poor Princip's neck was not strong enough to carry the albatross of a World War, Everyone is agreed that someone must have put him up to it. But who? Innumerable volumes have been written to trace the chain of responsibility back to the secret services and foreign ministries in Belgrade, Vienna, Budapest, St. Petersburg. Berlin, as well as to international bankers, international Jews, Free Masons, armaments-factory owners, oil companies. My favorite remains the washerwoman in the Frank O'Connor story who admits to being an ignorant old woman but she knows well who started the war, it was "the Italian count that stole the heathen divinity out of the temple in Japan, for believe me, Mr. 'Awkins, nothing but sorrow and want follows them that disturbs the hidden powers."
Perhaps in this case we can go back far into the distant past, all the way to that story of the Gauls and the geese.
The geese may have been the invention of a patriotic story-teller. But the Gauls were definitely the most warlike and the most predatory people in Europe in the early fourth century BC, they had sacked the sacred shrine of Delphi in Greece, they had conquered whole provinces in Asia Minor and they might well, with a little luck, have wiped the little city-state of Rome off the map when they swarmed up the Capitoline Hill one dark night in the year 390 BC. Yet when in the course of time Julius Caesar attacked them with a few thousand Roman legionaries, they collapsed within less than eight years, (for comparative purposes, it took the Romans 75 years to conquer the little island of Corsica), their whole immense country stretching from the Rhine to the Pyrenees became a Roman province, whose millions of inhabitants in fairly short order gave up their ancestral traditions, exchanged their ancestral trousers for the Roman toga, abandoned their ancestral religion, forgot the ancestral wisdom of their Druidic seers, forgot every word of their ancestral Celtic language except for a few geographical names, and turned in the process of time into Frenchmen (a name derived from the name of the German tribes which conquered them a few centuries later), speaking the debased Latin dialect of the Paris streets. (Up through the Middle Ages this dialect, which descendants of the Gauls today consider to be the only proper medium for civilized discourse, was treated with contempt by refined people who spoke and wrote the classic Latin of Cicero and Saint Augustine. As Professor Samuel Eliot Morison has noted in his The Founding of Harvard College, a professor at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century who gave a lecture in French would have caused the same kind of scandal as a professor in a New York university in the twentieth century giving a lecture in Yiddish.)
What went wrong for the Gauls in those eight fatal years? Of course the Romans had a better trained military force and more modern techniques of warfare and administration. But many much smaller nations, from Ireland to Chechniya to Vietnam, have in our day put up a much longer and more stubborn and spirited fight against great powers far better equipped with weapons of mass destruction than the Roman Republic.
Perhaps, it has been suggested, the Romans had a secret weapon. A few centuries before Julius Caesar, more peaceful invaders had come to Gaul from the south, in the form of Phoenician traders who founded trading posts and remains of whose ships are constantly being discovered at the bottom of the Mediterranean. Perhaps one of these lucky days one of the ships will be brought up that will have on board a bill of lading, signed by some merchant of Sidon or Tyre with a name like Hiram or Hanno, for some corded bales containing shoots of the first grapevines to be planted in what is now France. For contrary to what you may have heard, the vine is not native to France, it was imported and planted as a step in that great globalizing movement which started with the goats crossing the Bosporus..When the Romans took over the globalization agenda, according to at least one French historian (Désiré Pasquet, Histoire politique et sociale du peuple américain, volume I, p. 74), they actively promoted the production and consumption of wine among the native population, using it the way the French and the English would later used gin and rum to corrupt and incapacitate the North American Indians. By the time Caesar came, vineyards had spread almost all the way to the English Channel, and, since the Gauls, unlike the more prudent Greeks and Romans, drank their wine straight, undiluted with water, it may be plausibly speculated that they were too drunk to put up a successful defense against the Roman legions. Not so much the common soldiers - drunken soldiers often win battles - but their chiefs and noblemen. Drunken generals are unlikely to win eight-year-long campaigns against an enemy like Julius Caesar..
Does not the same explanation hold true for the decisive actions that started the two great wars which wrenched history around in the last century -- the invasions by German armies in overwhelming force into what had once been Gaul, first in August 1914 and again in May 1940?
The catastrophic defeats suffered by the French army in 1914 were ascribed at the time to the rank-and-file soldiers being all drunk on absinthe - the crack cocaine of its day - which was imported from Spain. (The offending drink was outlawed four years before Prohibition was imposed on alcohol in America, and you are still subject to heavy penalties if you try to smuggle a bottle across the Pyrenees into France.) But it seems more logical to put the blame on the wine-drinking French general staff which sent its best troops into a reckless attack on the Vosges mountains on their extreme right flank, allowing the Germans to come rolling over the plains of Belgium and almost round up the whole French army..The German Army of 1914 might have won the war right away, and we all today would be speaking German, except for the fact that it could only advance at the marching speed of foot soldiers and of horse-drawn wagons, and that left the French generals time to sober up enough to form a new line of defense along which for the next four years a good million Frenchmen (contrary to what you may have been told by uneducated television commentators and congressmen) died to save Paris.
History never repeats itself, but there are sometimes amazing parallels. On the tenth of May 1940, once again German hordes came storming into Gaul, and once again the French general staff sent their best troops on a harebrained attack, this time on their extreme left tank, all the way to Holland, and once again the Germans broke through in a sector where they were not expected, and this time they forced the surrender of the whole French army in six weeks.. Once again the blame was put on the foot soldiers who this time were said to have been demoralized by drinking too much Pernod and other forms of pastis, the homegrown French substitute for absinthe. (And though pastis was never formally prohibited, a law was passed forbidding it to be advertised.) There is a good deal of evidence for the claim that the French soldiers had been kept for eight months following the declaration of war, months which included the coldest winter Europe had known for a century, shivering in idleness on the frontier waiting for something to happen, with no distraction for endless days and nights except getting good and drunk. "The dominant color in all our latrines is black," my friend Pierre Tal-Coat the painter told me one day when he was back in Paris on leave.
For all that, contrary to the generally received opinion, the French soldiers were capable of putting up a spirited defense in 1940: their last-ditch defense of Lille, for example, won the few extra days the British needed to get their whole army plus a couple of hundred thousand French soldiers safely out of Dunkirk. Once again the chief blame should surely go to the French generals who obstinately refused to recognize that warfare had changed since they won their last battle in 1918. They had been convinced by the wretched performance of Italian tanks in the Spanish civil war that mechanized war was a passing fad. The Germans, convinced that the Italians did not know one end of a tank from the other, thought otherwise and spent those winter months relentlessly drilling their men in the art of the breakthrough. :Sir Alan Brooke, who commanded the British expeditionary force in France in those fateful days, has left a vivid account of how his frantic efforts to build up an adequate defense line on the Belgian frontier were continually being interrupted by invitations from the generals commanding French troops on either side of him to gargantuan liver-cracking lunches stretching on for hours with pâtés and confits and fine wines and fine cognacs and fine assurances that everything was in tiptop shape all along the line.
Until one day the line disappeared, and this time the generals learned that this time they would not have time to sober up..
But not all the blame should be put on the generals. Were they not merely the last link of a predestined chain which went all the way back to the old bootlegger Hanno or Hiram whose ambitions probably went no further than making enough money to go carousing with dusky damsels through the cedars of Lebanon?..
Now we are in the 21st century, and things are as bad as ever, or worse, and we need a new Ancient Mariner. The world wars of the last century are already fading in the collective memory (didn't a TV anchorperson the other day read off her teleprompter the words World War Eleven?), we have a new order of calamities. Who caused them? Who set in motion the tide that crashed on Nine Eleven?
One school (Leon Poullada, "The Failure of American Policy in Afghanistan. World Affairs, Volume 145, No. 3, winter, 1982-3) puts the blame on John Foster Dulles, the U. S. Secretary of State., who in 1954 contemptuously turned down a request for tanks and guns by the Afghan government, because Afghanistan had a border quarrel with Pakistan, then considered a bulwark of American interests in south Asia. This cleared the way for the Soviets to make generous gestures like building a highway to Kabul and training all the future officers of the Afghan army in Red Army academies, the very officers who staged a coup d'état in 1978, inaugurating a chain of brutalities which was eventually to spread far beyond the borers of Afghanistan...
A more elegant scenario has the road to calamity began on the day in 1959 when the modernizing Prime Minister Dâoûd allowed Sophia Ziâï, a young Frenchwoman married to an Afghan prince, was given authorization by the King of Afghanistan to walk down a street in Kabul without wearing a veil over her face, the first woman to. have done so in 600 years. He prudently provided a well-armed police car to follow it, but it turned out to be unnecessary, there was no sign of hostility to the revolutionary display and the king and progressive people around the world had every right to be pleased.
Later this princess, or one of her close relatives, was in Paris, and came to dinner one night at the home of an American correspondent named Joseph Barry. She brought with her a handsome illustrated volume on life in Afghanistan, which was left on the coffee table, where Michael, the correspondent's teen-age son, found it after dinner. He raced through in fascination from the first page to the last. He was an aficionado of western movies, and here was the West as he dreamed of it, not in Hollywood make-believe but for real:-- the endless deserts, the topless mountains, the hard wiry solitary self-reliant people.
He bullied his parents into letting him go to Afghanistan that summer instead of a camp in New England, he would go back many times, he learned to love the rugged land and its rugged people, he learned to speak its various languages.
He came at a turning point of history. For centuries Afghanistan had been the prize in what a British diplomat once called "the Great Game," the struggle that had been going on for centuries for the control of the heartland of central Asia between rival empires - Mongol, Persian, Indian, more recently British and Russian - continually invaded but never completely conquered, always maintaining in its deserts and mountain valleys its old tribal traditions and loyalties, its refusal of foreign authority, its Moslem faith, its insolent independent ways. Now it was enjoying a period of comparative peace and was slowly overlaying its medieval social structure with modern features like schools for girls. But ancient tribal and ethnic feuds would not die, and over the years dragged the land - especially after a coup by two exceptionally brutal and exceptionally inept communist parties seized power in Kabul - into anarchy.
The bosses in the Politburo in Moscow, headed by Leonid Brezhnev, saw in this a splendid opportunity to revive the Great Game. In 1979 they sent the Red Army in to bail out the collapsing communist government, take over the whole country and plant themselves within easy distance of the oil treasures of the Persian Gulf.
Barry was in Afghanistan at the time and stayed on through the years of general revolt and merciless repression that followed the invasion, years in which the population of the country fell from fifteen to ten million people, while a communist leader commented that it would take no more than a million Afghans to build a model socialist state.
He worked for various humanitarian organization like Médecins du Monde that were trying to bring at least some medical supplies to a population trying to survive under a steady rain of Russian bullets and bombs.(One of the ways to pass the time of day in those five-day periods was to read the plays of Shakespeare, especially the three parts of King Henry the Sixth, and find the wrangling brutal warlords of fifteenth-century England behaving and talking very much like the tribal leaders of twentieth-century Afghanistan.)
He was the first westerner to come out of Afghanistan with photographic and eye-witness evidence of Russian atrocities, like their pouring gasoline into an under-ground irrigation ditch where the population of a village had taken refuge and setting it on fire. He made his case to the Bertrand Russell Tribunal in London, which had been set up to find evidence of American atrocities in Viet Nam and now, to the dismay of many of its supporters, agreed to look into Russian atrocities in Afghanistan. He brought several eyewitnesses with him, including a judge of the Afghan supreme court and a peasant who had never seen a telephone before, and they made such a strong impression on everyone who heard them that eventually they were invited to Washington to meet President Reagan.
An interview with Ronald Reagan was always a carefully structured affair, and Barry was thoroughly coached in advance on his behavior as guide and interpreter, what subjects his Afghans should bring up, in what order they should speak and how long, where they should stand for the photo opportunity, and so on. But as it turned out, the President threw protocol to the winds, he sympathized immediately with these proud rugged hawknosed clear-eyed men, he listened intently to their tales of heroism and horror, he talked horses with them. Just like Barry when he saw that book as a boy, he was fascinated by the sight of this living embodiment of the Old West, the Old West which he had spent a good part of his life recreating in Hollywood movies. When one of the Afghans opened his shirt to show where he had been shot through the chest on a Himalayan mountainside, Reagan opened his shirt to show him where he had been shot in just the same spot on the streets of Washington.
It was a meeting that made a profound impression on all concerned, and may we; have made a profound impression on history as well. For it has been reported that this meeting with the Afghans was a major factor in Reagan's decision to authorize his security chief Bill Casey to go all out in giving the mujahedin all the arms they needed to lick the Russians. And Casey, a man with a Brezhnevian breadth of vision, recognizing this as a chance to deliver a mortal blow to the evil empire and win the Great Game once and for all, poured the arms in, notably the stinger missiles which broke Soviet command of the air, and eventually broke Soviet morale as well. And with the advice and consent of generals Zia, Gol, Beber, Nawaz Sharif, Musharraf and others of the Pakistani intelligence service, the bulk of the arms went to those regarded as the fiercest fighters, whether they were home-grown Afghan and Pakistani fundamentalists like the Taliban, or foreign holy warriors like Osama bin Laden.
And then the way was open to the World Trade Center.
It will take a future Saint Augustine to pick out on which one of all the names mentioned here history will affix the responsibility for setting the present infernal machine in motion. I hope he does not choose that plucky young princess who first showed her naked face on the streets of Kabul.
©2005 Robert Wernick