Friday, March 29, 2013

Jobs for Ex-Servicemen

From Jonathan Shay's thought-provoking book Odysseus In America.  Excerpted in the New York Times:
For which civilian careers does prolonged combat prepare a person? Let's look at the strengths, skills, and capacities acquired during prolonged combat:
• Control of fear.
• Cunning, the arts of deception, the arts of the "mind-[expletive]."
• Control of violence against members of their own group.
• The capacity to respond skillfully and instantly with violent, lethal force.
• Vigilance, perpetual mobilization for danger.
• Regarding fixed rules as possible threats to their own and their comrades' survival.
• Regarding fixed "rules of war" as possible advantages to be gained over the enemy.
• Suppression of compassion, horror, guilt, tenderness, grief, disgust.
• The capacity to lie fluently and convincingly.
• Physical strength, quickness, endurance, stealth.
• Skill at locating and grabbing needed supplies, whether officially provided or not.
• Skill in the use of a variety of lethal weapons.
• Skill in adapting to harsh physical conditions.
Shay answers his question later in the chapter.  It's a rather obvious conclusion:
A career that war exactly prepares veterans for upon return to civilian life is a criminal career...
This problem has been around for a long time.  In other times and seasons whole societies were affected by soldiers trained to violence and then abandoned by their employers.  From Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century:
Outside Paris the breakdown of Paris was reaching catastrophe.  Its catalyst was the brigandige of military companies spawned by the warfare of the last fifteen years.  These were the Free Companies who "write sorrow on the bosom of the earth" and were to become the torment of the age.  Composed of English, Welsh, and Gascons released after Poitiers by the Black Prince, as soldiers customarily were to avoid further payment, they had acquired in the Prince's campaigns a taste for the ease and riches of plunder...They imposed ransoms on prosperous villages and burned the poor ones, robbed abbeys and monasteries of their stores and valuables, pillaged peasants' barns, killed and tortured those who hid their goods or resisted ransom, not sparing the clergy or the aged, violated virgins, nuns, and mothers, abducted women as enforced camp-followers and men as servants.  As the addiction took hold, they wantonly burned harvests and farm equipment and cut down trees and vines, destroying what they lived by, in actions which seem inexplicable except as a fever of the time or an exaggeration of the chroniclers.
Fever and exaggeration surely there were, but Tuchman also provides inadvertent hints at other explanations: these freebooters were looking for patrons, people to pay them to fight in actual battles, or not to fight at all.  By that measure, the bigger effect they had on commerce and production the more motivated wealthy lords might be to buy them off.

It's a long-held theory that more than one of the Great Crusades was motivated, at least in part, to get these brigands to practice their brigandage somewhere else and hopefully have their population thinned by attrition as well.

The 20th Century surely has had more soldiers than any other, perhaps all the others combined, and almost all of them did not continue in military work after the big wars ended.  In the US, the G. I. Bill was intended to provide privileges and opportunities for returning soldiers to find something to do with their lives other than the killing and madness of great military operations.  Their new jobs were a tremendous contrast to their old ones.  This photo taken in 1951 (found on a National Geographic website) are a group of former soldiers learning how to decorate cakes:

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


From Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop:
The Episcopal residence was an old adobe house, much out of repair, but with possibilities of comfort...The thick clay walls had been finished on the inside by the deft palms of Indian women, and had that irregular and intimate quality of things made entirely by the human hand.
That's what I like about handmade things.  Every one is different and reflects the skill, thoughts, and even moods of their creator.  Creativity, actual creativity, doesn't require materials, it requires thought and time.

By such a measure, our most productive places are also the least creative.  Factories are cold, full of motion but absent of life and vitality - machines building machines designed by machines. No creativity there.  If any human should find themselves on the factory floor, it is to play a part that humans can still play more cheaply than the best designed robot.  They are judged by how well they perform as machines.

And what about our homes?  Our clothing?  Our furniture?

Our art?  Machines have understood language, image and composition for decades; when will they take over the production of art?  If art becomes a constricted matter of process and form, they probably could no problem.

That was a crucial part of the nightmares in Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 - the only purpose of art was to prop up the powerful or distract the populace.  A machine could easily generate such art.  Here's 1984:
There was a whole chain of separate departments [in the Ministry of Truth] dealing with proletarian literature,  music, drama and entertainment generally.  Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime, and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs that were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator. 
And Julia describing the books they produce in "Pornosec":
Oh ghastly rubbish.  They're boring really.  They only have six plots, but they swap them round a bit.  Of course I was only on the kaleidoscopes...
Could people tolerate such things?  I think we already do, whether they are machine creations or not.

Let me have handmade words.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


All writers are part of an historical milieu, including writers of what we now recognize as scripture.  Thus they were inclined to use symbols and ideas from their surrounding culture to get their point across.

I read this in the Iliad yesterday.  Speaking is Phoinix, older foster brother to pouting Achilles, trying to convince him to come back to the fight.  From Rouse's translation:
Do not despise the feet of those who bring good tidings.
This is very much a part with the famous verse from Isaiah:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!
Rouse is cheating a little bit; his version of the line seems to be consciously drawing a parallel to the Biblical verse.  Other translators like Fagles and Pope do not talk about feet at all.

However, the original does.  Consulting an interlinear source we see that Homer is referring to the feet, in particular, of those who bring the tidings.  Stringing together the sense of the Greek words, you more or less get: "not you, at least, my spoken words nor my foot put to shame".

News didn't travel so fast back then, and honor was eagerly given to those who cared enough to travel the distances to bring it.  It wasn't enough to have a voice - feet got you close enough to communicate.  In Greece, again, the fellow whose grand, sacrificial effort brought news of the victory at Marathon twenty-six miles to the people of Athens is still honored today as we call our races marathons and set racers to run that peculiar distance.

The idea translates rather easily to a gospel setting.  The news of faith, love and salvation in the home of God has been passed on with great labor and enthusiasm, and has been received in the hearts of many with joy and gratitude.  As for my church, the idea was picked up by Book of Mormon writers as well, and became a sort of leitmotif for the passing on of the Good News.

Friday, March 15, 2013


This is from John 21:
And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.
I find it charming that he sums up the record using the name of his friend, instead of one of Jesus' many titles in His role as Savior of the world.

We get John's point - there's lots that the Savior did and said during his life that wasn't recorded, or was recorded and then lost.  This raises an interesting question - if further works or teachings of Jesus Christ came to light, should they not be studied and pondered and applied to our lives?

I should think so, enthusiastically.  Though there's the challenge of identifying what might have come from the Savior.

In 1945 a work called The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in Egypt.  It purported to contain many statements made by the Savior during his lifetime.  The claim is substantively true, for many of the 114 sayings match Biblical sayings very closely.

There are many that aren't in the Bible, however.  This parable, teaching 97, is fascinating:

Gospel of Thomas Coptic Text

Jesus said: The kingdom of the [Father] is like a woman carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking [on a] distant road, the handle of the jar broke (and) the meal poured out behind her on the road. She was unaware, she had not noticed the misfortune. When she came to her house, she put the jar down (and) found it empty.
Blatz's translation.  Original and translation found here.

I haven't done enough to know whether this is true or not, but I like it a lot.  It feels like something the Savior would have said.  I don't know that I can make a stronger statement than that about it.  Very close in style to the parables we are familiar with in the New Testament.  The wide range of applications is significant, too - a people carrying along a heritage, or the results an individual expects from their labors.  Awareness of surroundings, attention to important details, the consequence of slow and steady losses, and a key irony that turns productive labor into useless toil.  It also has conflicts and details that promote further thought - for example, how could the lady not know her jar was empty?

My LDS religious tradition has encouraged open-minded study of non-canonical teachings, the Apocrypha in particular.  Doctrine and Covenants 131:
Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha—There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly;
Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth;
And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom;

While I believe the LDS people to be more studious than the average, not many Latter-day Saints avail themselves of this particular opportunity, myself included.  Missed opportunities.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Becoming Evil to Better Fight Evil

Some fine themes in the Lord of the Rings books were neglected or even reversed in the well-known film based on the story.  During a parley before their last big battle, and emissary of Sauron, a splendid character who styled himself "the Mouth of Sauron" came out to the heroes to bluster and intimidate.  In the book it went like this:
...he mocked, turning to Aragorn with scorn.  "It needs more to make a king than a piece of elvish glass, or a rabble such as this.  Why, any brigand of the hills can show as good a following!" 
Aragorn said naught in answer, but he took the other's eye and held it and for a moment they strove thus; but soon, though Aragorn did not stir nor move hand to weapon, the other quailed and gave back as if menaced with a blow.  "I am a herald and ambassador, and may not be assailed!" he cried. 
"Where such laws hold," said Gandalf, "it is also the custom for ambassadors to use less insolence.  But no one has threatened you.  You have naught to fear from us, until your errand is done.  But unless your master has come to new wisdom, then with all his servants you will be in great peril."
The ambassador is later allowed to retire from the field, humiliated but unharmed.

Here's how it goes in the movie.  The opposite outcome - unprovoked violence against an unarmed noncombatant, followed by a joke.  Thus the "good guys" become more like the wicked enemy they are seeking to master.  If the bad guys weren't so ugly, you wouldn't be able to tell the sides apart.

Objectivity Is a Difficult Objective

Wendell Berry, in People Land Community:
Let us acknowledge that the objective or disinterested researcher is always on the side that pays best. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Prophetic Pound

"An Object" by Ezra Pound, published 1912:
This thing, that hath a code and not a core,
Hath set acquaintance where might be affections,
And nothing now
Disturbeth his reflections. 
He manages to describe computers (and people who turn themselves into them) many decades before their introduction.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Priests and Their Duties

Excerpt out of The Visitation of a Collegiate Church by Archbishop Odo of Rigaud, in November 1266.  From The Portable Medieval Reader:

Also, we found Lord Gilbert called Barrabas, priest and rector of the parish of St. Stephen, ill-famed many times; for he said that for many years he kept and still keeps his own niece and had begotten children by her. He did not have the letters of his ordination; he could not tell by whom or through whom he had been ordained; he was also ill-famed of trading; he celebrated [mass] insufficiently, was too solitary, being known to few.

Odo was doing the rounds around his diocese to check up on how things were going, and was pretty disappointed at what he saw in Rouen, St. Stephen in particular.  I find the account about Lord Gilbert interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is how he lists Gilbert's infractions in order of descending importance.  I find that the opposite is more logical, and better storytelling, too, building up to what seems to me the biggest - turning his niece into a concubine "for many years".

It's like if you were to list the legal consequences for some crime or other:  "Penalties for jaywalking include death by firing squad, sale of children into slavery, and an eleven dollar fine."  Seems graceless, right?  You hit the climax early and the rest of the sentence is rather small beer.  Odo apparently wasn't trying to tell a compelling account - he was more worried about keeping priests like Gilbert in line.

The other thing.  The last item, whatever its importance, highlights the role of the parish priest as the most visible representative of the universal church in the lives of millions in western Europe.  It was essentially a social occupation, and Odo's concern about Gilbert's teaching and getting to know the people of the parish shows that he cared about how the church was fulfilling a purpose in peoples' lives.

For the most part parish priests were a humble and unprepossessing bunch, and (Gilbert notwithstanding) many of them were holy souls, devoted to the instruction and well-being of their flocks.  Chaucer, skeptical about other roles in medieval society, nonetheless made a humble parson one of the good guys in The Canterbury Tales:
His parishioners devoutly would he teach.
Benign he was, and [wonderfully] diligent,
And in adversity [fully] patient,
And such he was proved often [truly].
Wide was his parish, and houses far asunder,
But he never [neglected] [any], for rain nor thunder,
In sickness nor in mischief to visit
The farthest in his parish, [rich] and [poor],
Upon his feet, and in his hand a staff.
This noble example to his sheep he gave,
That first he wrought, and afterward he taught.
(I have updated the spelling and changed some of the more antique words.)

"The Function of Knighthood"

Sometime in the 1100's John of Salisbury wrote a treatise entitled Policraticus.  Here is an excerpt, from J. Dickinson's translation, included in the anthology The Portable Medieval Reader:

For soldiers...are the more loyal to their prince in proportion as they more zealously keep the faith of God...
A cynical view of culture is that it exists to justify the position of the powerful.  At different times in history even the religious principles of the socially disruptive Christian faith have been turned to that end.

Friday, March 01, 2013

We Care More About Others' Sins Than Our Own

Some persons who are going down to perdition: Whiskey-men, saloon-keepers, whoremongers, prostitutes, seducers of innocent virtue, wilful liars, theatre-goers, horse-racers, (and their kind,) tricksters in politics and business, and bad people of all grades are on the road to perdition.
No mention of murderers in this list, which is significant since the author thereof is Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President James A. Garfield.

This is from his book The Truth, and the Removal.  The work compasses two subjects - the first 2/5 a treatise on Christian religion and virtue, and the rest a justification for his crime.  Interestingly enough, the word "murder" appears only once in the first portion, in reference to the politics of the Caesars in the Roman Empire.