The Second World War created the world that I grew up in, and the central event of that war was the Nazi-Soviet struggle. 80% of the Germans and Austrians killed or captured in the war were killed or captured by the Soviets (Glantz, The Soviet-German War1941-1945: Myths and Realities: A Survey Essay ). My standby reference on the war, R.A.C. Parker’s brilliantly concise The Second World War: A Short History (Oxford University Press, 1989), was written too early to take advantage of the opening of the Soviet archives and the deconstruction of the German generals’ memoirs. Two recent English books represent two major approaches to writing about this unspeakably terrible conflict.Continue reading
A few years ago I drafted a post about two different approaches to the study of the ancient world. I put it aside but then my mother, Stefano Costa, and Dimitri Nakassis started to talk about a recent New York Times piece on Dan-el Padilla Peralta and his argument that “Far from being extrinsic to the study of Greco-Roman antiquity, the production of whiteness turns on closer examination to reside in the very marrows of classics.” I think it is time to pull those ideas out and give my perspective as an ancient historian and orientalist who is not American or British.Continue reading
If you know the ancient writers, you must be puzzled why moderns often pronounce that ancient Greek armies were highly skilled and rigorously disciplined. Those writers make it clear that getting high-status Greek men to accept any kind of training and discipline was like getting them to pick a day to have a tooth pulled. Spartans accepted commands and corporal punishment and did a bit of drill, but no ancient writer describes them practising marching or fighting in peacetime. One reason why people say things which are contradicted by so many ancient texts is that they are using the ancient Greeks as an excuse to talk about their own culture, so they project things they love or fear about their own culture on the ancients.
Have a look at this quote from Professor Emeritus, Colonel (retired), Dr. Jonathan House who is talking about how the proud professionals of the German army got themselves spanked by the Red Army.
Germany, in fact, is the poster child for what we like to call the Western Way of War, the idea that a well-trained force can achieve rapid offensive decisive victory by superior discipline, manoeuvre, and equipment. Well, that works part of the time, but if you encounter somebody who is not willing to say he’s defeated, as the Soviets were not, and then you encounter somebody who in addition to that has all this vast terrain, then eventually your plan gets thwarted.Dr. Jonathan House, “How the Red Army Defeated Germany: The Three Alibis,” 2 May 2013 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zinPbUZUHDE 20:00
For a long time I have been meaning to find the original citations for the great debate between sociologist Max Weber and historian and orientalist Eduard Meyer about the significance of the first two Persian invasions of Attica (the Athenians didn’t like to talk about the third Persian army and fleet which arrived a hundred years later and was welcomed with open arms). Jona Lendering mentioned it in his article on the significance of Marathon but when he was creating his site he was bullied into leaving out citations by teachers who were worried that their students would crib from it. I finally have the passage: Eduard Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums, 4th edition (Därmstadt, 1965), Bd. IV.2.3 p. 420 http://www.zeno.org/nid/20002751402 Meyer had just noted that Delos and many other sacred sites in Greece seemed to have a working relationship with the Persian kings by the beginning of the fifth century BCE. I will give the original German and then my translation.Continue reading
So, it is 2020. It has been an odd year in an odd decade. And while I am tempted to just note who was king and the most exciting thing that happened in the heavens, I want to finish this section of my chronicle. The conjunction of Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter in May was exciting but there are other things to write.Continue reading
Today anyone who wants to can download photos of almost all the European fencing manuals written before the 20th century, and often buy a convenient reprint or translation. But this makes it difficult to get a sense of the genre as a whole. Which manuals should someone who is just getting interested in the subject read first? How can we decide which texts our readers or listeners are likely to know, so that when we mention them it helps them understand? The last academic monograph on the subject, Sydney Anglo’s The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (2000) is organized by themes so information on any one manual or tradition is scattered across different chapters.
So this week, I would like to give a short list of books which is representative of European fencing manuals before the middle of the 17th century.
Fuzzy Nation (by John Scalzi: Tor, 2011) is a fun quick read of a novel, and I hope it inspires more people to read H. Beam Piper. The author has the good taste to blog and to focus on what he loves about old science fiction not on proclaiming that he is morally and intellectually superior. But I found one difference between the original from 1962 and this book from 2011 revealing about cultural change in the past 50 years.
The Terro-Human Future History is a world where the United States ceases to exist early in the First Century Atomic Era, and human civilization is rebuilt in Latin America, South Africa, and Australasia. In the 7th century Atomic Era people think of the United States about as often as we think of the Timurids or Srivijaya, and the racial prejudices of the First Century Pre-Atomic have been dissolved by the result of seven centuries of intermarriage amongst the survivors. Piper had a romantic sympathy for the Confederate States of America, but he loved giving characters names like Themistocles M’Zangwe. Fuzzy Nation is set in a world where people go to Oxford and Duke, come from North Carolina, and allude to Andrew Jackson and Star Wars.
Both writers create imaginary cultures which have a few of their own culture’s quirks (Piper’s cocktail hours and tobacco smoking, Scalzi’s environmental impact statements and universal surveillance). But one writer assumed that not just the United States but the whole European great power system would vanish just like other mega-states and power systems have in the past, and the other made sure that the reader knows that in the far future Duke is still a place to go to law school and Oxford is a very prestigious university. I find that, as Mr. Spock would put it, fascinating. One novel tells readers that the customs of their tribe are not the laws of nature, and another promises that there’ll always be Chicago.
This fall, I have been thinking about why some communities did not feel right for me. I enjoy learning from different types of experts, from craft workers to retired thugs to academics, but the kind of journalists who write opinion pieces and columns always gave me a bad feeling. I have trouble talking about feelings, but I think I can articulate two reasons why I feel this way.Continue reading
Today is Remembrance Day. I am not as mobile as I would be in an ordinary November, and neither of the ways people often talk about Remembrance Day feels right to me. Some people turn it into a festival of peace and forget the third verse of John McCrae’s poem, others (mostly in other countries) a festival of aggressive nationalism. But I am in Canada, and today I will remember something.
Once about 35 years ago, a boy was born in Canada to Canadian citizens. As a child, he was brought across the sea to a hard place to stay with some of his parents’ friends who were not very nice people. And then fire fell and killed his parents and their friends and faceless soldiers came and a grenade blasted. He was fifteen.
Those soldiers took him to a place beyond the law and kept him there for questioning. And while they did not have any basis for this and a wounded child did not have much to tell them, his parents and their friends were dead or escaped, and they wanted someone to punish. So they paid witnesses their thirty pieces of silver, and invented a new charge that had never before existed in law, and announced that he was some kind of enemy combatant or terrorist who had laid mines and thrown a grenade. Sometimes, people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time and get used as props in a political stage play.
And to their shame, four Canadian prime ministers from two different parties went along with this, just as they sent Canadians to fight and kill and die alongside those faceless soldiers. For many years he was in that place beyond the law in front of a kangaroo court, although he was a Canadian citizen born in Canada and an alleged child soldier. And so as people before kangaroo courts do, he eventually confessed and was sent to Canada, and Canada is not beyond the law so a little while later he was free. And one of those Canadian governments kept fighting him in court, until the government’s lawyers went into a conference room with their bosses and shut the doors and the bosses walked out sweating and announced a ten million dollar settlement. The last I heard he was studying nursing.
Some people with different passports were even unluckier: the same people who ran the kangaroo courts and the hiring of witnesses and place beyond the law had an organized program to murder or kidnap and torture people who got in their way. As I write this, some of those tape-shredders and book-burners are in offices with title and pension and the power of life and death. On the 21st of January 2021, some of them will be carrying their effects out the door in a cardboard box. And that is not justice, but it is a start.
I do not know how many people remember Omar Khadr. But I remember.
In September and October, I came across several projects in archaeology which help us understand early warfare. This week’s post will take us from China to Germany, Italy, and England and from the Bronze Age to the 18th century CE.
I will start with the Bronze Age (best age!) then move on to ages of other metals. A German-UK-Chinese team published the latest project trying to understand how Bronze Age swords were used. They examined damage to the edges of originals and then compared it to damage on replica swords by Neil Burridge after performing Andre Lignitzer’s six sword-and-buckler plays. I’d like to see more studies like this borrowing ideas from other martial arts like Shastar Vidiya to see which seem to work best with Bronze Age weapons from Europe. Fifteenth-century German fencing such as Andre Lignitzer’s plays has a lot of blade-on-blade contact and twisty actions while the blades are crossed, whereas other martial arts rely on the shield to defend or prefer simpler weapon-on-weapon actions. But I think that the evidence that swords from some periods often have marks characteristic of controlled parrying, whereas in other periods the edge damage is more random, is valuable. I am also glad that they experimented with common matchups like sword against spear, and not just the rare occasions when a sword was used against another warrior with a sword who was ready for the attack.Continue reading