Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Levitticus 19

"`Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly."

Justice; not social justice.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

I Like an Honest Car Salesman

Photo taken March 1941 in Bedford, Virginia (from Shorpy).   Three years later, on June 6, 1944, nineteen young men from Bedford, a town of 4,000, would die on Omaha Beach.  All were in  Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division.  Thirty seven Bedford men served in Company A (a 20th Bedford man died elsewhere on the invasion beach that day).  The enormity of the loss led the National D-Day Memorial to be located in the town.  The last survivor of the Beford Boys passed in 2009.

Good and Bad: 1941

Monday, January 20, 2020

King Day Parade

Today I visited the East Valley Martin Luther King Day Parade in Mesa, about 30 minutes from our home.  It was a very enjoyable experience. Though Mesa is a city of 500,000 the parade had the atmosphere of small town New England parades that I grew up with; relaxed, neighborly, no big floats, with lots of neighborhood organizations participating. Had nice conversations with folks standing around me.

The attendees were more white than black with lots of hispanic folks along the parade route which is pretty typical of Phoenix metro demographics. The parade started off with the Mesa police (and the police honor guard) and fire, followed by the mayor, city council and Maricopa County Sheriff’s Officer. After that it was a grab bag, ranging from church groups, schools (public and private) including the Junior ROTC band from a local high school, local businesses, martial arts groups, athletic clubs, and even a contingent from the Muslim Girl Scouts of America as well as an appearance by some of the Marvel Superheroes! Two of my favorites were the Buffalo Trooper Motorcycle Club, who revved up their engines as they passed the reviewing stand, and the Buffalo Soldiers of The Arizona Territory group consisting of black reenactors of those army regiments stationed in the west.

This was the first King Day parade I've attended.  In April 1968 I marched in a memorial parade in my Connecticut hometown after Reverend King was murdered.

Muslim Girl Scouts (the girl in the green and white gown was not part of the group)

Below are Buffalo Soldier re-enactors and then the Buffalo Trooper Motorcycle Club.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Civil Service Day

On this date in 1883 the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was signed by President Chester MacArthur.  The Pendleton Act gave birth to today's federal civil service system, eliminating political patronage for most government positions and providing job protection for employees.  At the senior level about 5,000 positions remain to be appointed by each new Administration of the approximately 2.8 million civil servants in the federal government.

Prior the Pendleton Act federal jobs were patronage based, doled out by each new incoming Administration to its political supporters; in those days the number of federal jobs was much smaller.

Concerns over corruption and incompetence had prompted several attempts at reform but it was the 1881 assassination of President Garfield by a disgruntled office seeker that finally prompted passage of reforms.

Today it is time to repeal the Pendleton Act and revert to a patronage based system.  The current civil service system served its purpose for a time, but that time has expired. 

With its growth and added political power, the federal civil service has become an unelected 4th branch of government that operates on its own terms, complete with job security and court and legislative fiats that encourage a lack of accountability along with poor decision making.  A new administration, particularly one not aligned with the existing value system of the bureaucracy, has limited impact on its operations being able to only pick a few critical fights where it seeks to impose its agenda.  A couple of years ago I was at an event and ended up talking with the guy sitting next to me.  Turns out he was a recently retired senior civil service employee at the Department of Agriculture.  At one point he told me that the job of a career employee at his level was to "make sure the political appointees didn't make any important decisions".   He was a nice guy, but that's just wrong.  This is not how our governmental system is supposed to work.

We need to drastically reduce the number of protected civil service positions and revert to a patronage system for the rest.  The only civil service positions should be those that are strictly ministerial and entail no discretionary decision making, such as making social security, medicare, and medicaid payments.  Everything else, including administrative positions supporting other positions would be patronage appointments.

Will it take longer to fill positions?  Yes.  But perhaps we will find that all those positions are not really necessary.  Will there be some disruption?  Yes, but worth the price in order to restore accountability and the ability of elected officials to actually govern.

Maybe after 50 years it'll be time to go back to a civil service system.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Cicero And His Friends

Of all excesses the most dangerous perhaps is the excess of good; it is at least that of which it is most difficult to correct oneself, for the culprit applauds himself, and no one dares to blame him.

- Gaston Boissier in Cicero And His Friends, writing of Cato the Younger.
I've just finished reading Cicero And His Friends: A Study of Roman Society in the Time of Caesar by Marie Louis Antoine Gaston Bossier (1823-1908), French classical scholar, professor of Latin Oratory at College de France, and permanent secretary of the most prestigious assembly of scholar in that country, the Academie Francaise.  His study of Cicero was originally published in the 1870s or 1880s (I found varying reference dates) and the version read by me is a 1897 English translation.

The work is a study of the personalities of Cicero (106-43BC) and several of his friends, some obscure to us today; Atticus and Caelius, while others retain their fame, their names still echoing through the corridors of history, Cato, Caesar, Brutus, Octavian (Augustus).

Cicero remains of interest today, both for his own works, thoughts, and career, but also for the window he allows us into a 2,000 year old world that in some aspects is incomprehensible to us, both in others ways very familiar.  It was Cicero's vast and constant correspondence over decades, significant portions of which have survived, that provide a glimpse of the events, personalities and motivations of those involved with the last days of the Roman Republic and the emergence of the Empire.  The sheer volume of Cicero's correspondence allowed for books containing it to be published in the centuries after his death; a death imposed by one of his last correspondents, Octavian.

It is also unique for our knowledge we are granted of the Roman world.  Prior to Cicero we have some narrative histories by authors such as Polybius and after Cicero we encounter Tacitus, Livy, and Suetonius among others.  But they are historians, compilers of events and anecdotes.  With Cicero we have a participant in world-shaking events and he and his friends are writing as those events occur.  It is as if for a brief moment a spotlight shines upon thirty years of the city's six centuries of dominance.  All the rest remains in shadow.

But what a time for that spotlight to shine!  We are in the final decades of the Republic, when factional fighting, bribery, and power struggles dominate the streets of Rome.  Bossier is very perceptive about the nature of that struggle, the frailty of the Republic and both the problems and benefits of the coming Empire; benefits that depended on whether you were a Roman aristocrat or a resident of the conquered provinces which at that time were seen as opportunities for plunder by those aristocrats, a system reformed with the advent of Augustus.

Cicero resonates with modern readers because his own personality comes through so clearly in the letters.  He is scholarly, a brilliant orator, a defender of the Republic, able to foster relationships with both the fiercest defenders of the Republic and those who threaten it, as well as irresolute and vain.  Along the way we learn of his often fraught relationship with his wife, his concern for his daughter, whom he adores, difficulties with his son, and the latest scandalous gossip which he enjoyed so much.  Cicero reminds me of John Adams.  When reading the Adams-Jefferson letters one is struck by the contrast.  The cool, controlled, personally remote Jefferson writes one letter to every three of Adams, and Adams cannot contain himself in letters, his personality, his volubility shine through - he comes alive in the deluge of words, unlike Jefferson.  So it is with Cicero.

Bossier's prose (or at least the translation) is a pleasure to read.  It flows effortlessly, like the finest of late 19th century and early 20th century historical writing, full of astute observations, and with a determination to cast all of Cicero's correspondents in full, trying to understand motivations, and not resorting to caricature.

In a reminder of the relevance of those times and that feelings of living in troublesome times is not unique to us, Bossier writes near the closing of the book:
To the interest that the personality of Cicero gives to his letters, a still more vivid interest is added for us.  We have seen, in what I have just written, how much our time resembles that of which these letters speak to us.  It had no solid faith any more than our own, and its sad experiences of revolutions had disgusted it with everything while inuring it to everything.  The men of that time knew, just as we do, that discontent with the present and that uncertainty of the morrow which do not allow us to enjoy tranquillity or repose.  In them we see ourselves; the sorrows of the men of those times are partly are own, and we have suffered the same ills of which they complained.  We, like them, live in one of those transitional periods, the most mournful of history, in which the traditions of the past have disappeared and the future is not yet clearly defined . . .
For more on Cicero read The Dream of Scipio and Arpino.

Friday, January 10, 2020


After my morning post featuring drummer Jonathan Moffett, I learned of the death of Neil Peart of Rush, one of the greatest drummers (many think the greatest) in rock history.  While never a big fan of Rush, some of their music is remarkable and, as musicians, one can only admire the skill and creativity of Geddy Lee on bass, Alex Lifeson on guitar and Peart on the drums.  Apart from that they seem from all accounts to be genuinely nice guys.  Lee and Lifeson have been friends from childhood and have both been married for more than 40 years.

Which brings me to Neil Peart who joined Rush in 1975.  While Lee and Lifeson are gregarious and happy to meet with fans, Neil Peart, while very gracious, was also extremely introverted and sought to avoid interaction with strangers.  Along with drumming he wrote the lyrics for the band's songs (Lee and Lifeson did the music) and they often reflect Neil's personality, best represented in the song Limelight which is embedded below, along with the lyrics (for Rick Beato's breakdown of the complexities of the song watch this).

In the late 90s, Peart suffered a double tragedy, losing his daughter in 1997 in a car accident and ten months later his wife of 23 years to cancer.  Peart left the band, embarking on what became a 55,000 mile motorcycle trip through North America.  Three years later he rejoined Rush, which began recording again.

In 2015 Peart announced his retirement due to tendinitis in his hands and shoulder problems which impaired his drumming ability.  He died from a brain tumor at the age of 67.

Living on a lighted stage
Approaches the unreal
For those who think and feel
In touch with some reality
Beyond the gilded cage
Cast in this unlikely role
Well equipped to act
With insufficient tact
One must put up barriers
To keep oneself intact
Living in the limelight
The universal dream
For those who wish to seem
Those who wish to be
Must put aside the alienation
Get on with the fascination
The real relation
The underlying theme
Living in a fisheye lens
Caught in the camera eye
I have no heart to lie
I can’t pretend a stranger
Is a long awaited friend
All the world’s indeed a stage
And we are merely players
Performers and portrayers
Each another’s audience
Outside the gilded cage
EXTRA ADDED BONUS:  I usually don't care for drums solos but this is so good.

Smooth Drummer

This is mesmerizing.  Jonathan Moffett, tour drummer for Michael Jackson, playing to Smooth Criminal which features one of MJ's best rhythm tracks.  Astonishingly precise, clean, and funky at the same time.  And he can still twirl the drumsticks!  Watch it until the very end - it's worth it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Reflections On The Middle East Wars

I started writing this post before we vaporized Qassem Soleimani a few days ago, after reading some of the Washington Post's coverage on internal government documents over a 15 year period regarding our progress, or lack thereof, in military and nation building operations in Afghanistan.  From my perspective while the documents added interesting details there was nothing in the overall assessment that should not otherwise have been evident for anyone paying a modicum of attention to the news from Afghanistan over the past decade.  Our efforts in constructing a new nation has been a failure, costly in dollars and lives.  Whenever we leave that country it will plunge back into its own natural course.

The articles did prompt me, with the advantage of hindsight, to reflect on our efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the wider Middle East (ME).


I supported the initial invasion of Afghanistan based on the need to eliminate Al Qaeda’s use of that country as a base of operations and still believe that to be correct.  Once that mission was accomplished the attempt to fundamentally transform that country was folly - withdrawal was the better step.

Our 21st experience should teach us the impossibility of fundamentally transforming Muslim dominated countries. We are poorly equipped from many perspectives to do so. Interestingly you can argue, based on our ME experience and the experience of European countries dealing with massive Muslim immigration, that Islam, even as a minority, has been more successful in fundamentally transforming European democracy than we have been attempting the reverse in the ME.

The better course once Afghanistan had been dealt with would have been to inform the leaders of all Muslim dominated countries that the U.S. had no interest in regime change or in how those leaders governed their countries. They would also be informed that the U.S. would be vigilant in protecting the security of the United States and of its citizens at home and abroad and would take whatever unilateral actions were necessary to achieve that. If it meant launching drone strikes or Special Forces targeted missions we would do so.  As an example it has been widely reported that in the late 90s, the Clinton Administration striking an Al Qaeda camp where Bin Laden was known to be present but called off the strike because of the presence of a royal family member from one of the Gulf States at the same camp.  The failure to do so helped Al Qaeda rapidly metastasize in the late 90s, training thousands of potential terrorists in the Afghan camps prior to 9-11.  Under my proposal we would warn every one of these nations that we would take whatever actions necessary, regardless of the presence of their civilians and would have attacked the camp even at the risk of killing the royal family member.

It is necessarily an imperfect solution, likely to require repeated application over time, but so has been our long time presence in Afghanistan and my proposal would have entailed much less cost and loss of American life.

Although it was not a campaign pledge by Obama in 2008 I suspected he wanted to withdraw and hoped he would do so (one of the few things I would have supported him on) and was disappointed when he didn't.


I was initially on the fence regarding the proposed invasion but eventually came down in favor of it because post 9/11 the risk equation had changed for me. I was a WMD guy and felt the risks too great of not doing anything particularly because, at that point, the alternative was a rapidly collapsing sanctions regime (the forgotten context from 2002-3) and an unleashed Saddam. In the end the lack of an active Iraqi WMD program combined with the post-invasion actions by the Bush Administration, based on its goal of fundamentally transforming Iraq, made it a disastrous decision. We would have been better off instead encouraging the already significant tensions between Iraq and Iran.

The intelligence failure was attributable to erroneous, but not manipulated, intelligence due to two factors. The first is the post WW2 pattern of our intelligence agencies going through cycles of overestimating and then underestimating our foes. A common failing of many large organizations is preparing for the last war by trying to avoid repeating mistakes but overcompensating in the process. We saw this throughout the Cold War when it came to analyzing Soviet capabilities. The only time we got it right, with the reassessment of Soviet economic strength in the early 80s, was the sole time we were able to align political strategy with accurate intelligence. Regarding Iraq, prior to the 1991 war our intelligence agencies drastically underestimated the extent of Saddam’s biological and chemical warfare capabilities and completely missed his nuclear program. The reaction was to overestimate Saddam’s capabilities over the next decade, a reaction enhanced by the next factor.

Saddam’s campaign to convince everyone outside Iraq he had kept WMD was indeed successful. He deliberately acted in ways consistent with retaining WMD. Certainly his neighbors believed it; in his memoirs the American military commander for the invasion, Tommy Franks, recounted discussions with King Abdullah of Jordan and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in which they told him Saddam had a sizable chemical and biological weapons capability.  Al Gore and Joe Wilson (of 16 Words fame) opposed the war because they believed Saddam had a sizable chemical and biological arsenal which would cause enormous U.S. casualties.  I remember a conversation with a friend prior to the war when we were discussing this and wondering about whether Saddam was bluffing about WMD but our immediate reaction was “nobody could be that stupid!“. Well, he was. It was Iran he was bluffing though, not the West.

In September 2004, the Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD (more popularly known as the Duelfer Report; about 1,000 pages in length) was issued.  The report, which I read, was based on extensive post-war interviews with Iraqi military and political leaders, as well as a review of internal Iraqi documents.

It turned out that only a very small circle of Iraqi leaders knew before the war that Saddam had secretly destroyed most of his WMD arsenal. He told other leaders and the most senior military commanders about it only on the eve of the American attack. Even then commanders in the field were left in the dark. When interviewed about WMD, they would claim while they didn’t have any, they were sure one of the divisions on their flanks had it. When the flank division commanders were interviewed they didn’t have WMD but figured the divisions on their flanks did.

The other revelation in the Duelfer Report was while Saddam destroyed his WMD arsenal he'd kept his scientific and industrial capabilities in place enabling him to quickly rebuild his arsenal once sanctions were lifted.  Given Saddam's predilection for massive miscalculations I believe the result within a few years would have been either another Iraq-Iran War or another confrontation with the West but, in this case, the United States would have had much more support than in 2003 (of course by then Saddam may have rebuilt his WMD arsenal and could inflict more casualties).  In any event, the goal should have been destruction of those capabilities, rather than regime change or the futile task of transforming Iraq into a democracy.

Recent Events 

Let's start by entering the WABAC Machine because we can only understand the current situation by knowing how we got there.  Since the Iranian revolution, the regime of the mullahs has had the initiative most of the time.  The Carter administration tried appeasement and a flaccid and tentative response to the hostage crisis.  Both the Reagan and Clinton administrations got played in their search for the ever elusive Iranian "moderates".  As mentioned above the GW Bush administration managed to create a power vacuum in Iraq largely filled by the Iranians who've increasingly made Iraq a client state.

During those decades the Iranians, mostly through surrogates, sponsored bombings of American military facilities, assassinations in Europe and attempted assassinations and bombings in the United States, seizing and murdering Americans, and supporting terrorists in Lebanon and Gaza.  Since 1979 the Iranian regime has proclaimed itself at war with America.

The already unstable situation metastasized with the actions of the Obama Administration which sought to "rebalance" American policy in the Middle East by strengthening Iran, a course of action which also required accommodations with Russia.  The capstone was the Iran Nuclear Deal which, as I wrote four years ago, was never about nuclear weapons:
Iran does not need the bomb in the short-term now that it has what it wants;  huge amounts of cash to fund its foreign objectives, a clear message sent to the Sunni states that it, not the U.S, is the big dog in the region, the leisure to determine whether and when it suits their needs to break out of the constraints of the deal (and even if they don't break out of the deal, Iran now has the right to have nuclear weapons when the deal expires in 15 years) and retaining the American hostages to get further goodies.
The reason this deal is acceptable to the President is because its primary purpose was never about Iran dismantling its nuclear program (though, if as part of the process the Iranians did so THC is sure the President would have been fine with that as it would have made his job easier).  In order for there to be a U.S. - Iranian rapprochement and thus for Obama's hoped for chance of improvements in relations that would lead to cooperation and allow the U.S. to withdraw from the Middle East, Iran had to be managed into at least nominal compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Without that, the President would not have the maneuvering room to improve relations.  That's why a managed trajectory that eventually allows Iran to become a nuclear power if it choose that route was just as good as dismantling a program because it provided enough of a fig leaf for the U.S. and Europe to say "it's a deal!".

The nuclear deal will make substantial funds available to the Iranian regime.  One of the themes of the President has been that because Iran's economy and infrastructure is in such bad shape that the influx of billions of dollars will have to be spent on internal improvements, not on increasing havoc in the Middle East or on armaments programs.  THC believes this statement indicates the President's weakness in math.  The ending of sanctions will make about $150 billion available to Iran apart from the billions more that will begin flowing in as it sells oil and strikes business deals.

It is estimated that Iran's total financial support to the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza is about $7 billion a year.  Iran could double its financial support for these groups for the next five years and it would still have more than 75% of its financial windfall available for internal improvement and that does not even include the additional ongoing revenues from the end of sanctions related to oil.
You can read my full analysis of the Iran Nuclear Deal here; I believe it stands up to the test of time and wrote it before we learned of the astonishing action of the Obama Administration in secretly shipping $1.7 billion in cash to Iran in January 2016, done in such as way as to avoid existing U.S. sanctions!

As part of the nuclear deal, U.S. sanctions were lifted on Qassem Soleimani and he was left free to travel wherever he wanted without fear.  He went to Russia to negotiate with Putin and spent much time in or working to develop militias in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, after previously leading the IED campaign in Iraq which killed 600 U.S. military personnel.  As Iran has grown its sphere of influence in the Middle East, it's had the side effect of creating a tacit alliance between two other big regional players, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

On top of all of this we had the Syrian Civil War in which Iran supported the Assad regime and the U.S., after inviting Russian intervention, decided to support rebel "moderates" including Al Qaeda affiliated groups.

And then there was the rise of ISIS, which saw the U.S. reinsert forces back into Iraq working, at some level, with Iranian supported militias directed by Soleimani.

Meanwhile, Iran has started small level attacks and harassing operations on British and American navies operating in the Persian Gulf as well as oil tankers and launching missiles at Saudi oil production facilities.

Until the past week, the Trump Administration had acted with restraint.  However, the recent Iranian directed attack on a U.S. base provoked a reaction which, in turn, the Iranians used to try to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.  Whether they were trying to create another Tehran or Benghazi embassy situation can't be known for certain.

I support the elimination of Soleimani.  The normal American response since 1979, with the exception of the 1987 destruction of the Iranian navy, has been to be either passive or to react at a relatively low level, hoping to send a signal to the mullahs.  Instead, it's allowed the mullahs to dictate the next steps (a lesson we should have learned from Vietnam - read Dereliction of Duty).  President Trump's action sends a clear message - I passed on earlier situations and did not retaliate hoping you would see reason, but when I do respond it is going to be on my terms, not on yours.  I approve that message.  The mullahs may or may not read the new message correctly but they certainly did not read our past messages as we thought they should.

However, there is a big but here.  Our goal should be removing the 5,000 remaining American soldiers in Iraq, rather than leaving them to help mop up ISIS, all the while having to maneuver between the Iranian supported militia and a largely Shiite population in Iraq generally sympathetic to Iran.  It is time to leave.  Whatever other actions we might need to take in the event of future Iranian attacks they should not involve American boots on the ground (other than Special Forces raids).  No more permanent or semi-permanent presence in these countries.

Monday, January 6, 2020

I'll Be There

A while back I did a post on a song by the band I Nine.  The group broke up ten years ago, so I was surprised to find Rick Beato (whose music channel I've written of before) goes way back with the band to its early days.  In 2018, Rick did a segment with Carmen Keigans, the group's vocalist (the guitarist also participates) and it is wonderful.  In it he plays the demo for I'll Be There.  It was the album version of this song that made me a fan but the demo is actually better.  It's also a showcase for Carmen's incredible voice.  Give it a listen.

And stay for the rest of the interview (she does some a capella singing).  Along with her phenomenal voice Carmen radiates charm and charisma.  While she does a little composing and singing, she's now a full time pediatric nurse and has two young children of her own.    (ALERT:  Unfortunately the embedded video has been disabled - click here and it will take you to a playable version; start at 3:40)

  In this article Carmen speaks of her decision to leave the band and pursue a nursing career:
I have people tell me that I am wasting my talent and that I should start performing again," Keigans said. "I re-read my journal recently and saw how many times I wrote, ‘I know God does not intend for me to spend my days in the back of a van.' I spent most of my days in the van while we were touring."

The band's record contract was up in October 2008, and she moved everything she owned back to Orangeburg to be closer to her father. She told the band she needed some time to figure things out, and what she figured out was that nursing school was the best choice for her.

She still feels like she gets to perform - although perhaps on a smaller scale - when she works with pediatric patients.
"It is so amazing to work with children," Keigans said. "We will do what we can to cheer them up and put smiles on their faces. Sometimes that means performing or singing a song together."

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The DC Bubble & The FBI

I've just finished reading "Review of Four FISA Applications and Other Aspects of the FBI's Crossfire Hurricane Investigation", the 480 page report issued by the Office of the Inspector General of the US Department of Justice in December 2019.  While it will take a while to pull together my thoughts there is one issue I wanted to address now because it is so striking throughout the document and has not been addressed much in commentary to date.

During Crossfire Hurricane (the code name for the investigation of possible collusion between Russia and individuals associated with the Trump campaign) the FBI often relied upon "open source" materials to assist in its investigation.  These materials usually consisted of articles published in newspapers and magazines.  It is also clear from the IG report that much of the material in those open sources came from information planted by representatives of the Clinton campaign, particularly Glenn Simpson of Fusion/GPS, and Christopher Steele who was hired by Fusion/GPS and produced the "Steele Dossier".

The result is the FBI, in part, confirming its theory of Trump campaign collusion with Russia, using news articles based upon claims, which we now know to be false, from the Clinton campaign, information which, in part, purports to come from sources in Russian intelligence!  Sounds crazy, doesn't it?  Particularly where, as the IG report concludes, the FISA Warrant against Carter Page would not have been sought without the Steele Dossier.  In effect the FBI confirmed Steele Dossier allegations by reference to newspaper articles whose source was the Steele Dossier!

Let's take one example that really struck me; the sections in the Republican Party Platform regarding Ukraine.  The IG report states that all four FISA applications regarding Carter Page relied upon information from the Report 95 of the Steele Dossier, including:
[A]ccording to [the sub-Source], Candidate #1's [Trump's] team, which the FBI assesses includes at least Page, agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue and to raise U.S./NATO defense commitments in the Baltics and Eastern Europe to deflect attention away from Ukraine.
The IG report goes on to state:
In further support of this allegation from Report 95, the FISA application described two news articles from July and August 2016 reporting that the Trump campaign had worked behind the scenes to change the Republican Party's platform on providing weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces and that candidate Trump appeared to have adopted a "milder" tone on Russia's annexation of Crimea.
The application further claims that Carter Page was involved in changing the platform language in his role as an intermediary between Russia and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort (Page has repeatedly denied ever even meeting Manafort and the FBI never found any evidence to the contrary - Carter voluntarily, and without legal representation, met on several occasions with the FBI in 2017).

But there is a problem with the popular media narrative, widely reported at the time, about the arguments over the platform - one that I fell for in 2016, as did the FBI, a narrative that proved to be false.*

In truth, the draft Republican Party platform already contained tough language on Russia, in part as a reaction to what was seen as the Obama Administration's too-soft approach to Putin's regime.  When the platform committee met at the convention a Texas delegate, Diana Denman, originally a Cruz supporter who ended up supporting Trump, proposed an amendment to the draft language:
We therefore support maintaining (and, if warranted, increasing) sanctions against Russia until Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are fully restored.  We also support providing lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine's armed forces and greater coordination with NATO on defense planning. Simultaneously, we call for increased financial aid for Ukraine, as well as greater assistance in the economic and humanitarian spheres, including government reform and anti-corruption.
A Trump national security aide, JD Gordon, recommended edits to the amendment and after consulting with New York HQ asked to have the language regarding lethal defensive weapons deleted (these were the same weapons the Obama Administration had steadfastly refused to provide to the Ukraine).

The final platform language contained some of Denman's amendment.  Here is the final language and you can judge how tough it is on Russia:
Also neglected are our strategic forces, especially the development and deployment of ballistic missile defenses.  The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system has been delayed and underfunded.  To curry favor with Russia, defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic have been neutralized and the number of planned interceptors in Alaska has been reduced.  A New START agreement (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), so weak in verification and definitions that it is virtually impossible to prove a violation, has allow Russia to build up its nuclear arsenal while reducing ours.  Meanwhile Moscow has repeatedly violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (a treaty agreeing to the elimination of land-based mid-range nuclear missiles) with impunity, covertly testing missiles banned under that agreement.

In the international arena, a weak Administration has invited aggression.  The results of the Administration's unilateral approach to disarmament are already clear: An emboldened China in the South China Sea, a resurgent Russia occupying parts of Ukraine and threatening neighbors from the Baltic to the Caucasus, and an aggressive Islamist terror network in the Middle East.

We support maintaining and, if warranted, increasing sanctions, together with our allies, against Russia unless and until Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity are fully restored.  We also support providing appropriate assistance to the armed forces of Ukraine and greater coordination with NATO defense planning.
And here is the 2016 Democratic Party Platform language:
Russia is engaging in destabilizing actions along its borders, violating Ukraine's sovereignty and attempting to recreate spheres of influence that undermine America interests.  It is also propping up the Assad regime in Syria, which is brutally attacking its own citizens.  Donald Trump would overturn more than 50 years of American foreign policy by abandoning NATO partners - countries who help us fight terrorism every day - and embracing Russia President Vladimir Putin instead.  We believe in strong alliances and will deter Russian aggression, build European resilience, and protect our NATO allies.  We will make it clear to Putin that we are prepared to cooperate with him when it is in our interest - as we did on reducing nuclear stockpiles, ensuring Iran could not obtain a nuclear weapon, sanctioning North Korea, and resupplying our troops in Afghanistan - but we will not hesitate to stand up to Russian aggression.  We will also continue to stand by the Russian people and push the government to respect the fundamental rights of its citizens.
Note the contrasts here - while the Denman amendment language on explicitly providing "lethal defensive weapons" to Ukraine was dropped, her language committing the Republican Party to "maintaining and, if warranted, increasing sanctions until Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity are fully restored" has been added; the Democratic platform does not mention sanctions, nor commit the party to restoring Ukraine's sovereignty.  Nor did the Democrats promise to provide "lethal defensive weapons".  In fact, if you look at the language carefully the Democrat platform makes no concrete promises regarding Ukraine, unlike the Republicans.

One would think the nation's premier law enforcement and counter-intelligence agency would do something as elementary as trying to confirm the story peddled by the news media regarding the Republican platform, and then comparing the language regarding Ukraine in the respective platforms.  I'm betting the Crossfire Hurricane team never looked at the full section on Russia and Ukraine in the Republican platform because between the Steele Dossier and the reports from their media favorites they had what they needed.

The blind faith of the FBI in the liberal news media exists (1) because they've grown up in a world where the New York Times and Washington Post have biblical authority and (2) those publications constantly and reassuringly reinforce dtheir existing world view.  I give the Times and Post the same credibility as Breitbart and Gateway Pundit but seemingly the question of credibility did not arise for the FBI so it fell for Fake News propagated by the Clinton campaign and trumpeted through its house media organs in New York and DC.

* There is a bigger problem with the fact that the FBI was never able to find any confirmation that Carter Page had anything to do with the platform, an allegation he has repeatedly denied nor, for that matter, anything to support any of the Steele Dossier allegations regarding him, yet were continually asserted to be factually accurate by the agency in its renewal FISA applications, but that's a story for another post.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Crystal Ship

On January 4, 1967 The Doors released their first album containing Light My Fire which became a #1 single that summer but the first single released was Break On Through, heavily played on early FM radio and sounding different from anything else on the airwaves.

The Crystal Ship displays another side of the band.
The crystal ship is being filled
A thousand girls, a thousand thrills
A million ways to spend your time
When we get back, I'll drop a line

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Irishman

What a waste of 3+ hours.  I've enjoyed most of Martin Scorcese's films over the years but The Irishman was quite a disappointment.  Flaccid and dreary.  It looks like it was shot on video - the cinematography is terrible.  The screenplay just kind of sits there and the movie is way too long.  Because the film takes place over a 50 year period and the actors, particularly Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci appear throughout, a "de-aging" process was employed on them - the result is weird and off putting, particularly for DeNiro who, even when his face looks younger, walks and moves like a guy in his late 70s.

This is DeNiro's movie, told completely from his character's perspective, that of Frank Sheeran, a mob hit man and supposed confidante of Jimmy Hoffa, but his performance failed to capture my interest.  The only decent performances were by Al Pacino who portrays the mercurial and charismatic Hoffa quite well, without falling into Pacinian overacting, and Pesci who plays the subdued, controlled, but merciless mob boss Russell Buffalino.  The rest of the cast seems to include every actor who's played a mobster in a movie during the last four decades doing their mob thing.  One touch I appreciated is that Hoffa's wife Jo is played by the actress who was the annoying babysitter and drug bagman in the climatic scenes of Goodfellas thirty years ago.

I am not one who is much concerned with factual accuracy in a film as long as it captures some overall truth or insight into the events but when factual inaccuracy is matched with inexcusable and irrelevant incursions into the movie it becomes ridiculous.  Suddenly, in the middle of the film, we switch without explanation to the story of  the murder of mobster Crazy Joey Gallo at Umberto's Clam House in Little Italy, which has nothing to do with anything else in the story and, most certainly, was not done by Frank Sheeran (nor, for that matter, did he kill Hoffa).  What was that all about?

As far as historical accuracy is concerned the best part of The Irishman is its portrayal of Hoffa, down to his personal tics - did not drink alcohol, loved ice cream, was a stickler for punctuality - and the bigger context of his battles with Bobby Kennedy, his dealings with the mob when Teamster president, the mob's outright takeover of the Teamsters when he was imprisoned and his murder by the mob, prompted by seeking reelection as union president while denouncing the gangsters.  The worst part as far as accuracy is everything else in the film.

If you are interested in more of the history of the Teamsters, the life of Hoffa and his disappearance read Jack Goldsmith's recent book, In The Shadow Of Hoffa, which I wrote about here.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Annotated Roads To Moscow

The original version of this post contained serious formatting errors which are now corrected and additional edits have been made . . . 

The finest pop song about an historical event is undoubtedly Roads To Moscow, the 1973 song composed and recorded by Al Stewart which I saw performed in 1974 at the Orpheum Theater in Boston while he was on tour in support of the album Past, Present, and Future.  The events he describes began more than 78 years ago as Operation Barbarossa, the German surprise attack on the Soviet Union, triggering the bloodiest conflict in human history.  By its end in May 1945, 4.3 million Germans were dead, mostly military personnel, and perhaps up to 27 million Russians, two thirds of them civilians.

Stewart's song balances a vivid, poignant, and historically accurate lyric with a lovely melody, a Russian influenced chorus, and an evocative and emotional arrangement.  He tells the story of a Soviet soldier, one of tens of millions of people caught in the horrific tragedy caused by two of the most brutal regimes to ever be inflicted upon the human race - Nazi Germany, led by Adolph Hitler, and the Communist Soviet Union of Josef Stalin.  It's a world of spiritual darkness and limited and terrible choices for the common people trapped by those events, a dilemma also brought to life by Alan Furst in his splendid series of novels set in the same time period - particularly Night Soldier and Dark Star.

Let's look at the lyrics and explore the song in more detail.
They cross over the border the hour before dawn
At about 315am on the morning of June 22, 1941, the German army launched Operation Barbarossa.  The attack, including 14 Finnish and 13 Romanian divisions, involved 3.8 million soldiers, 3,400 tanks, 3,500 aircraft and 700,000 horses.  Facing the onslaught were about 2.5 million frontline Soviet troops (the Red Army had about 4 million men under arms in total in the European part of the country).

Though Hitler and Stalin had been allies since the August 1939 signing of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Treaty, which divided Poland and the Baltic States between them, they were long-term ideological enemies and a conflict was inevitable at some point.  However, the specific timing of the German attack was dictated by Hitler's desire to remove what he viewed as Britain's last hope for support in the war, the same motive that drove Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 (for more on this read Bonapartaroo Barbarossa).

Ideological considerations drove Nazi decisions as to how the war would be conducted.  The inhabitants of occupied portions of the Soviet Union were to be starved, driven out, or left as slave labor for German settlers, captured Red Army communist commissars to be executed, and roving extermination squads (Einsatzgruppen) organized that would ultimately kill a million Jews.

In the months leading to the attacks, Stalin dismissed multiple warnings from his own intelligence services as well as from Churchill and Roosevelt, claiming they were provocations designed to entice him into a war with Germany that would only benefit the Western capitalist powers.  As late as the night of June 21-22 he ordered the execution of German defectors who entered Soviet lines to warn of the imminent attack.  The result was that Red Army troops were left deployed in forward positions near the border, in vulnerable formations ill-suited to defense.

The Soviet Army was still recovering from Stalin's 1937-38 purge (possibly triggered by information planted by German agents) of senior military leadership in which at least 75% of these officers were killed, and its poor performance in the 1939-40 Winter War with Finland, gave the German military what proved to be unwarranted confidence that the Russians would be quickly defeated.  This overconfidence also contributed to the inexplicable lack of attention by the Germans to the logistical challenges of a massive campaign designed to penetrate deeply into the Soviet Union, challenges that were ultimately to doom Barbarossa.

The border referred to in the lyric was different from the 1939 Soviet border.  With the 1939 pact, Stalin was able to occupy half of Poland, all of the Baltic States and the Romanian province of Bessarabia.  By advancing the border, he gained strategic depth against attack, while also arresting, murdering, and deporting hundreds of thousands of citizens of those countries who he believed might oppose his plans (a sordid tale told in disturbing detail in Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands).  In addition, with his surprise attack on Finland in October 1939 he gained buffer room for Leningrad and the crucial northern port of Murmansk.
Moving in lines through the day
Most of our planes were destroyed on the ground where they lay
The Luftwaffe destroyed over 2,000 Soviet aircraft on the ground that first day, losing only 35 planes in its attacks.  More than 3,900 Soviet planes were destroyed in the first three days, giving the Germans overwhelming air superiority.
Waiting for orders he held in the wood
Word from the front never came
By evening the sound of the gunfire was miles away

Ah, softly we move through the shadows, slip away through the trees
Crossing their lines in the mists in the fields on our hands and our knees
And all that I ever, was able to see
The fire in the air glowing red, silhouetting the smoke on the breeze
In those first days and weeks many Soviet troops found themselves isolated behind the rapidly advancing Germans and without order amidst the command chaos.  "The front" refers not to the front lines where the soldiers were, but to the organization of Russian army groups into "Fronts".  In other words, they heard nothing from the High Command.

While many isolated or surrounded soldiers surrendered (nearly 3 million by the end of 1941, 3/4 of whom would die in German captivity) many thousands were eventually able to find their way back through gaps between the rapidly advancing German Panzer units and the slower infantry following behind to rejoin their comrades, our narrator being one of those.  Others remained uncaptured but behind enemy lines, becoming the core of the partisan units that would harass the Germans for years (and who make an appearance later in the lyrics).
All summer they drove us back through the Ukraine
Smolensk and Vyazma soon fell
By autumn we stood with our backs to the town of Orel
In this passage, the narrator uses the terms "us" and "we" in reference not to his personal location but rather to the overall plight of the Red Army.

The German attack was divided into three army groups.  Army Group North advanced through the Baltic States towards Leningrad, while Army Group South drove the Soviets, "back through the Ukraine", culminating in September with a great encirclement near Kiev in which more than 700,000 Soviets were killed or captured.

The third, and initially most powerful, group was Army Group Center, taking the road to Moscow along with Smolensk, Vyazma, and Orel were located.  The Battle of Smolensk lasted from July 10 to September 10, with the Red Army losing nearly a half million soldiers dead, wounded, or captured.  The battle was prolonged because in its early stages Hitler diverted panzer units to the south for the Kiev encirclement.  The delay in capturing Smolensk may have fatally delayed the German drive on Moscow.
With the panzers returning to Army Group Center, the advance on Moscow resumed in late September, racing against the onset of winter.  During October, the Germans pulled off two more giant encirclements at Vyazma and Bryanks, in which another million Soviet soldiers were killed or captured.  Orel fell on October 3 to General Guderian's tanks.
Closer and closer to Moscow they come
Riding the wind like a bell
General Guderian stands at the crest of a hill
On November 15, the Germans began their final push on Moscow.  General Heinz Guderian (1888-1954), commander of the Second Panzer Army, is considered one of the finest tank generals of the war, performing brilliantly during the Poland invasion and then leading the armored spearheads in the 1940 French campaign.  Guderian's task was to approach the Soviet capital from the southwest and encircle it.  Though he made some advances, his overextended forces were halted short of the capital and left in vulnerable defensive positions.  On December 26, 1941 he would be dismissed from command because of a dispute with his superiors (including Hitler) over how to respond tactically to the recently launched Soviet offensive.  Recalled to duty by Hitler in 1943 after the disaster at Stalingrad, he was charged with rebuilding the army's panzer capabilities.  On July 21, 1944, the day after the failed assassination attempt against Hitler, Guderian was appointed Army Chief of Staff.  Though often arguing with Hitler about tactical decisions, he remained a faithful supporter of the Fuehrer until the end of the war.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-139-1112-17, Heinz Guderian.jpg
Winter brought with her the rains
Oceans of mud filled the roads
Glueing the tracks of their tanks to the ground
While the sky filled with snow
In this section, two weather periods are mixed together.  From late October until mid-November came a period of cold rain, turning the primitive Soviet road network into a sea of mud.  Then came freezing temperatures, making the roads stable and more passable.  The final German push was launched in this window before the onset of brutal cold and snow made offensive operations much more difficult.

(Mud season, November 1941),_Russland,_Herausziehen_eines_Autos.jpg
And all that I ever was able to see
The fire in the air glowing red silhouetting the snow on the breeze
Now the red is silhouetting "the snow on the breeze" rather than "the smoke on the breeze" of the first verse, signaling the passage of time from the warmth, sun, and disaster of June to the bitter cold, snow, and hope of December.
In the footsteps of Napoleon the shadow figures stagger through the winter
The German offensive continued until December 5 under increasingly taxing conditions with heavy snow and temperatures plunging to well below zero.  Counting on achieving complete victory by the end of fall, German soldiers had not been issued winter clothing, nor were tanks, assault guns, and motor vehicles designed and equipped to operate in these conditions.  At these temperatures the recoil fluid, lubricating oil and firing pins on German artillery, anti-tank, and machine guns failed, tank turrets would not turn and trucks had to be kept constantly running, using precious fuel.  And all these troubles amplified by the already overstressed German supply system virtually collapsing in the winter conditions.

Yet despite these difficulties, isolated German units got within 15 miles of the Kremlin, while to the northwest the main German forces were within 25 miles of the city.
A German officer wrote of conditions during the advance:
It is icy cold . . . To start the engines, they must be warmed by lighting fires under the oil pan.  The fuel is partially frozen, the motor oil is thick, and we lack antifreeze to prevent the cold water from freezing.

The remaining limited combat strength of the troops diminish further due to the continuous exposure to the cold.  It is much too inconvenient to shelter the troops from the weather . . . In addition, the automatic weapons of the groups and platoons often fail to operate, because the breeches can no longer move.
On December 3, the commander of Fourth Panzer Group reported its offensive combat power "has run out" because of "physical and moral over-exertion, loss of a large number of commanders, inadequate winter equipment".

Finally recognizing the reality of the brutal conditions and the disintegration of offensive capabilities Hitler and the High Command issued a halt order on December 5.

References to Napoleon were also a constant theme of Soviet propaganda which constantly reminded German troops of the fate of the last western invader, whose myth of invincibility, along with his army, disappeared in the Russian winter.
Falling back before the gates of Moscow
Standing in the wings like an avenger
What kept the German high command pressing ahead for so long despite the casualties and exhaustion of men and equipment was the persistent belief the Russians had exhausted their reserves and were on the verge of collapse.  It was a massive miscalculation and demonstrated the complete failure of German intelligence assessments.  They underestimated the willingness of Stalin to move troops from the Soviet Far East as well as the capability of the brutal and ruthless Soviet system to mobilize an almost endless number of reserves (unlike Hitler, who resisted fully mobilizing the German economy and populace until 1944, Stalin immediately took such measures).  Between June 22 and December 31, the Soviets lost 4 million men, the equivalent of its entire army on June 22 yet still had 4 million under arms at the end of the year.  It is hard to believe any other society surviving with that magnitude of loss in such a short time.

Less than 24 hours after the German offensive halted, the Soviets began launching their own attacks, designed to push back and isolate the German forces near Moscow.  In a series of actions lasting until the beginning of March 1942, the exhausted Germans were forced back more than 100 miles, permanently eliminating the threat to Moscow.

While Soviet soldiers were somewhat better equipped for the weather, the winter conditions still took a toll,  a toll only enhanced by Soviet commanders still favoring frontal assaults.  Thus, despite its success, the tactical shortcomings of the Red Army can be seen in the disparity in casualties during its three month offensive - 1.6 million for the Soviets versus 262,000 for the Germans.
And far away behind their lines the partisans are stirring in the forest
Coming unexpectedly upon their outposts, growing like a promise

You'll never know, you'll never know
Which way to turn, which way to look, you'll never see us
As we're stealing through the blackness of the night
You'll never know, you'll never hear us
Though not a major factor in 1941, by the following year the partisan threat became a major problem for the extended supply lines of the German army.  Partisan warfare in Russia was on a completely different, and larger, scale than in most of the rest of Europe, involving huge numbers, semi-organized and large scale assaults on German rear lines.  Big chunks of the Soviet countryside behind enemy lines remained out of German control throughout the war and forcing many troops to be diverted to fighting partisans.
And the evening sings in a voice of amber, the dawn is surely coming
Using "amber" in this context is very interesting.  Amber is a fossilized tree resin, valued as a gemstone.  From 1500 BC there was an Amber Road by which this material was moved in trade from the shores of the Baltic to the Mediterranean.  The leading source of amber was near what used to be the city of Konigsberg in Prussia, now known as Kaliningrad and part of Russia since 1945.

The famous Amber Room was initially constructed in Konigsberg and gifted in 1716 by the Prussian King to Peter the Great of Russia.  Installed in a palace outside of Petersburg (later Leningrad), the room was expanded, eventually covering 590 square feet and containing over 6,000 pounds of amber on panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors.

(The Amber Room)

During the war the German Army dismantled the Amber Room and transported it back to Konigsberg.  Disappearing at the end of the war, its location remains unknown, one of the last mysteries of the war.

The voice of amber is soothing - its message that things will get better.  The next lines tell us how:
The morning road leads to Stalingrad
And the sky is softly humming
We've moved ahead several months to the summer of 1942.  Unlike 1941, when the German Army was powerful enough to attack the Soviets from across its entire front, the Nazis summer offensive would be more limited in scope. June 28, the Germans attacked in the south, aiming for the oil fields of the Caucasus region and the heavy industrial town of Stalingrad.  The Germans advanced quickly, nearly reaching the Caspian Sea, but became bogged down in Stalingrad, with an increasingly obsessed Hitler insistent upon its capture.  The fighting lasted for almost six months ending in catastrophe for the Nazi regime with the destruction of the Sixth Army and the allied Hungarian and Romanian armies, along with heavy losses in other German units.  Of 91,000 prisoners taken by the Russians only 5,000 ever returned to Germany, some not until a decade after the end of the war.  The cost of victory was staggering for the Red Army - another 1.1 million dead, wounded or captured.

(Russian soldiers, Stalingrad)

In a military sense the failure to knock the Soviets out by the fall of 1941 was the turning point in the war, the point where unconditional victory by Germany became impossible but Stalingrad was the symbolic turning point of the war and both Stalin and Hitler were aware of its symbolism at the time.  The horror of the battle from the Russian perspective is captured best in Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, one of the greatest works of 20th century literature, in a section recounting the struggle of one Red Army squad to hold a ruined building amidst the rubble of the city.  Of course, being a Russian novel, everyone dies.

After Stalingrad, German military leaders no longer believed the war could be won, though it was not certain how long it might take the Soviets to win.
Two broken Tigers on fire in the night
Flicker their souls to the wind
We wait in the lines, for the final approach to begin
It's been almost four years, that I've carried a gun
At home it'll almost be spring
The flames of the Tigers are lighting the road to Berlin
The lyrics here are very cleverly structured.  The first line tells us of "two broken Tigers" followed by a reference to "the final approach" but we don't know where or when it is.  The next line tells us it's been "almost four years that I've carried a gun", placing us in 1945, but still not giving us a location as Soviet armies are fighting from the Baltic to Hungary.  Then it's revealed that the flaming Tigers are also "lighting the road to Berlin", creating a vivid and precise word picture.

The Tiger was the heaviest and most powerful tank produced by Germany during the war.  Like much German equipment it was over engineered, overly complex to manufacture and required high level maintenance to keep operational.  The Tiger I was produced from 1942 to 1944 and the Tiger II from 1944 on, but fewer than 2,000 made it to the army.  When it was available and running the Tiger proved devastatingly effective.

(Tiger II)
It's now April 16, 1945.  The Red Army is less than 50 miles from Berlin.  Much has transpired since the German surrender at Stalingrad in February 1943.  In July 1943 Hitler attempted his last major attack on the Eastern Front near the city of Kursk.  It quickly proved unsuccessful, the Soviets counterattacked, and from then until the end of the war the Red Army conducted a series of attacks.  The German siege of Leningrad ended and most of the Ukraine was reconquered by the end of 1943.  In June 1944, the Soviets crushed Army Group Center and drove the Germans out of Russia, advancing into Poland where by late July they were on the outskirts of Warsaw.  Then followed another of the countless tragedies of the war when the Polish Home Army rose up to evict the Germans.  Stalin, who opposed the anti-communist Poles, ordered the Red Army to stand by while the Nazis crushed the uprising, killing 200,000 Poles and razing the city (for more on the uprising read Warsaw Does Not Cry).

In late 1944, the Soviets advanced into the Balkans, causing Romania and Bulgaria to switch sides and reaching the borders of Hungary.
On January 12, 1945 the Russians renewed their attack on the Polish front, sweeping away the Germans quickly advancing to the Oder River near Berlin, where they paused to regroup for the final assault.
Ah, quickly we move through the ruins that bow to the ground
The old men and children they send out to face us, they can't slow us down
All all that I ever, was able to see
The eyes of the city are opening now, it's the end of a dream  
The Berlin campaign lasted from April 16 through May 2.   Though the assault contributed to the "ruins that bow to the ground" much of the city was already ruined by American and British bombing raids, some consisting of more than 1,000 bombers striking the city.

The reference to "old men and children" refers to the Volksstrum ("People's Storm"), a national militia consisting of all men between 16 and 60 capable of bearing arms, formed in October 1944, as the manpower needs of the crumbling Third Reich became ever more desperate (though even boys of 14 and 15 would see service by the end).  Poorly armed and trained, the Volkssturm units were of varying effectiveness and took heavy casualties.

Notice the contrast with the opening verse of the song.  In 1941, the narrator speaks of defeat, confusion, and retreat; four years later he is moving triumphantly forwards to victory.

(Berlin 1945)
Despite the claim that "old men and children . . . they can't slow us down", the Volkssturm and remaining regular Wehrmacht units imposed heavy losses on the Army army - 79,000 dead and 270,000 wounded in less than three weeks, a per day toll higher than any the Soviets had suffered since the dark days of 1941.  The human cost was made higher by Stalin's cynical move to place Marshals Zhukov and Koniev in competition to be first to Berlin, relentlessly mocking and scolding them, leading to reckless frontal assaults, particularly by Zhukov (for more on him read The Secret of Khalkin Gol).  And, with the encouragement of Stalin and the Red Army command, the victorious soldiers took a terrible vengeance on German civilians.
I'm coming home, I'm coming home
Now you can taste in the wind, the war is over 
And I listen to the clicking of the train wheels as we roll across the border
The lyric brims over with optimism.  Against all odds, our narrator has survived and looks forward to being reunited with his family.  In reality the odds were low that any soldier on the front line on June 22, 1941 would be alive and healthy enough to fight continuously and still be in the Berlin fighting.

8.6 million Red Army personnel died in the war; effectively the original 1941 army was killed twice over.  In comparison, the United States suffered 296,000 battlefield deaths with another 100,000 dead due to accidents and illnesses.

Nor were all the Russian dead solely the responsibility of the German army.  Life for Red Army soldier during the war was brutal.  Commanders employed tactics that wasted countless lives.  If you died, particularly early in the war, it was unlikely your family would be notified.  Any infraction, real or imagined, was subject to harsh discipline and extreme punishment.  During the first 18 months of the war (the only period for which we have figures), 160,000 Soviet soldiers were executed for cowardice or desertion.  By comparison, only one American was executed for these offenses during the entire war.  For those not summarily executed there were the Punishment Battalions and Companies to which officers and soldiers were sentenced to be used, in Stalin's words, at "the most difficult parts of the front, to give them the possibility to redeem their crimes against their country with blood".  The Punishment units were deployed for tasks such as suicidal front assaults and the clearing of minefields by marching through them, making it no surprise that an estimated 400,000 died in the process.  Their existence was such an embarrassment to the Soviets after the war that the existence of the units was officially denied.

And there were the Red Army's blocking detachments formed to shoot down retreating soldiers - retreating Red Army soldiers.  In this clip from the movie Enemy At The Gates, which takes place at Stalingrad, you can watch (about 2 minutes in) a blocking detachment in action (the first 20 minutes of the movie are stunning and accurate, after that it falls apart).

The optimism of those that survived extended beyond the relief of being alive and reuniting with family.  The memoirs and recollections of returning soldiers and officers are filled with belief and hope that conditions in the Soviet Union would be improved.  There was a feeling that, through their war effort, the common Soviet citizen had proven to Stalin they could be trusted, that the regime need not fear them, that the fear of being subject to arbitrary justice would end and there would be a new start for the Soviet people and a new and more cordial relationship with their government.. It was not to be.
And now they ask me of the time
That I was caught behind their lines and taken prisoner
"They only held me for a day, a lucky break", I say
They turn and listen closer

I'll never know, I'll never know
Why I was taken from the line and all the others
To board a special train and journey deep into the heart of Holy Russia
And it's cold and damp in this transit camp
And the air is still and sullen
And the pale sun of October whispers
The snow will soon be coming
In his account of the German-Soviet struggle, Absolute War, author Chris Bellamy writes, "the Red Army was the only one in the world where being taken prisoner counted as desertion and treason".  Stalin believed any soldier who allowed himself to be captured was a traitor and potential counter-revolutionary, and that Russians exposed to Westerners for any length of time became a danger to the Soviet state.  Bellamy adds:
The Soviet government and military command had absolutely no interest in what happened to Soviet people in German captivity.  When prisoners of war who survived were released at the end of the war [3 of the 4 million POWs died due to the German policy of exposing them to the elements and leaving them to starve, though a small number also died serving as guinea pigs during the initial testing of the gas chambers used at Auschwitz], they were usually sent to the Gulag or shot, and the same fate even befell many who had fought and crawled their way out of German encirclements during the war.
Our narrators falls into this last group.  His years of valiant service and suffering are to no avail.

Also subject to this treatment were civilians who either volunteered or been seized and taken to Germany as slave laborers.  Bellamy estimates that up to 1.8 million returning Soviet citizens were sent to Gulag camps or shot.

In Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, Anthony Beever tells the tale of a Soviet lieutenant caught in this madness.  Captured by the Germans in August 1942, he manages to escape and rejoin the Red Army, where he is promptly arrested, charged as a deserter, and sentenced to a Punishment Company.  Realizing his sentence is an effective death penalty, he deserts to the Germans!  We don't know his fate but it is unlikely he had a happy ending.

To their mutual disgrace, both Britain and America contributed to this horror.  Between 1945 and 1946, the two countries forcibly repatriated over a million Russians who did not want to return to the Soviet Union.  While it was the British who insisted on honoring agreements made with Stalin during the course of the war, the United States eventually went along.  The returnees were among those sent to the Gulag or shot.

Even for those escaping the Gulag or execution, optimism proved misplaced.  Stalin believed that after the "laxity" of the war years, Soviet discipline needed to reimposed to prevent any sliding back from the pre-war accomplishments of the state.  The post-war years proved grimly repressive with further waves of purges and the elimination of those tiny, fragile zones of personal autonomy some had carved out during the war.  Stalin even ordered the removal of crippled and disabled war veterans from the streets of Moscow because he felt their presence demoralizing.  It was in this atmosphere that a young returning officer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, found himself sentenced to ten years in the Gulag for telling a joke about Stalin.
And I wonder when I'll be home again and the morning answers, "Never"
And the evening sighs and the steely Russian skies go on forever
I find these the saddest line in music and no matter how often I hear them they affect me as powerfully as the first time.  They represent the betrayal of the hopes and dreams of people caught up in a horrible time, who thought they'd survived the worst, only to find themselves condemned to death, exile, continued fear and hopelessness.

We take leave of our narrator as he disappears into the mist beneath the steely Russian skies passing to an unknown fate, like so many other millions.  We'll end with some lines from the poet Osip Mandlestam (1891-1938), who himself died in a Gulag transit camp after sentencing for committing "counter-revolutionary activities" consisting of writing a poem mocking Stalin.
Mounds of human heads
Are wandering into the distance
I dwindle among them
Nobody sees me
 (Gulag prisoners)

(Prisoner 282, Solzhenitsyn)
Image result for solzhenitsyn prisoner gulag

Wednesday, January 1, 2020


I am certain of many fewer things than when I was younger, but the few things I am certain of I am really certain about.

Happy New Year

This sounds to me like victory on the morning of New Year's Day.