Myths and Realities

Carl Bridenbaugh’s Myths and Realities has a bold title.  One supposes that he will seek to reshape everything about the colonial south.  He doesn’t.  If we view the colonial south as a society of aristocratic-minded men with large social networks, with a mass of underclass and slaves lurking just beneath the surface–well, Bridenbaugh sees the same thing.

But the book shines an unusual and unexpected light on certain aspects of society that surprised me.  What he lacks in flash and dash Bridenbaugh makes up for in clear, concise prose.  Though he grew up in Philadelphia (and taught at Harvard), he writes with the nonchalance of our picture of a southern gentlemen.  It works.

Before I write more I should say that Bridenbaugh deals very little with slavery in this volume.  At certain times he acknowledges its obvious impact and the problems it caused.  Among a few other things, he briefly seeks to dismantle the myth of the contented rural slave.* Here he focuses, however, on those that shaped the overall culture, which means focusing on whites.  Those interested in a much more in-depth look at slavery, at least in Chesapeake society, may wish to go here.  Though Bridenbaugh focuses on a variety of issues, his thoughts on education and cultural formation interested me the most.

Myths are not lies per se, and ancient myths reveal many truths.  In part, myths serve as a kind of synthesis of accumulated data.  Myths might not reveal the whole complete truth but can illumine the important core truths.

I am not anti-myth, any more than I am anti-folklore.  Indeed, these are not things one can really be “against”–they just are.

But . . . while myths can reveal truths, at times they can also obscure them, at least partially.

In Classical-Christian education circles, the narrative (or “myth,” if you prefer) at times runs something like this:

  • America’s founding fathers were an assemblage of great men who gave us a remarkable political system that is the envy of many around the world.
  • The men would not have had the impact they did or been who they were without their educations, which in general were “classical” educations, involving the extensive reading of the classics.
  • Pre-Revolutionary America was largely a Christian society, and Christianity obviously shaped this education along with the classics.
  • Therefore . . . we should all receive this kind of education to help improve our selves and our country.

There are many truths in the above statements, but is it “True”?

Yes, many of our founders were remarkable and interesting men.  Many of them had classical educations.  But they represented a very small sliver of the population and we should wonder whether or not their experience can be transferred to the broader public. Bridenbaugh shows that

  • Formative elite culture and education had little to do with literacy and
  • Little to do with religion, or at least the church

Those that eventually revolted against the British (below the Mason-Dixon line at least) do not quite fit the assumed narrative some have about our past education.  But if the vast bulk of the populace lacked a classical education, what kind of education did they have?

Most settlers might have been literate, but they likely did very little reading.  A few notables had impressive libraries, like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and a few others.  Most other families had a Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, practical farming manuals, and little else.  They had nothing against book-learning per se.  Part of the reason surely was that books cost a great deal.

But there were other reasons.  Frankly, we hear no great laments about the lack of books in colonial America.  Those that did write books wrote for a small coterie that would have little application beyond their communities.  The lack of books meant they found their education elsewhere, and it seems they liked it that way.

All this made me think about the nature of education, but please consider the following thoughts speculative . . .

Residents in both the mid-atlantic and southern colonies loved visiting, events, and conversation.  Bridenbaugh states that they were all, “Eminently endowed with the art of talking.”  Dancing had great importance for youngsters, but not just because dancing allowed one to demonstrate aristocratic status. Such an interpretation gives far too much credit to Marx. They genuinely believed that learning the social graces and physical movements improved character.  We might suppose that this characater formation had strictly moral applications.  But again, this society had a political consciousness high enough to revolt from the British.  So either we assume that

  • The education of even the upper classes had no real historical content.  Then, this means that the American Revolution was not really a popular revolt, but one led primarily by the top crust of societal elites, something akin to Rome’s republican rebellion against their kings, or
  • Such an education (in visiting, talking, dancing, etc.) really did give one a distinct set of values that had public and political content.

We should not dismiss the first option out of hand (though the American Revolution, like most any revolution, was too messy to categorize absolutely in any direction).  George Washington, for example, had  a great fondness for Addison’s play about Cato the Younger, one of the pre-eminent plays of the Enlightenment.  Our Constitution very obviosuly borrows from the structures and ethos of the Roman Republic.  The Roman aristocracy led the rebellion and formed a government that favored their class.  And, we might note that the colonial rebellion started amongst the more egalitarian (and probably more literate) New England colonies.

But I do think the second option more likely.  This means we might have to change our view of what consititutes a good education, and helps us get beyond our current model, so heavily influenced by the Industrial Revolution.  Bridenbaugh writes that this upbringing did produce “a responsible aristocracy, though not a cultured one.”  And of course, one can get “historical content” in many ways apart from books.

The western emphasis on literacy predates the Reformation.  The Reformation on the whole certainly stressed it, but they inherited this from the Catholic church.  The Church preserved the ancient manuscripts.  Up until quite recently, one had to go to the Church to receive an education.

This might lead us to further speculation . . . if the education in the mid-atlantic and southern regions lacked a strong literate foundation, what might have been the state of the church?  Indeed, Bridenbaugh cites a variety of examples showing the rather deplorable state of the dominant Anglican church in the south.  Among other things, churches could not lead colonial culture because they failed to transcend it.  The majority of churches seemed to provide little in the way of spiritual guidance, training, or education.

This in turn leads us to question the role of the Church in the American Revolution.  To what extent did it have either a firm Christian foundation, or merely a polite Christian veneer that covered an Enlightenment foundation?

As I mentioned earlier, consider this mostly speculative.  But I credit Bridenbaugh with gently encouraging such thoughts.



*Population figures seem to indicate that in rural areas blacks outnumbered whites, who feared rebellion constantly, which does not support the ‘contented’ myth.



“A Land of Great Sinners, a Land of Great Saints”

If you can imagine a young, somewhat effete French aristocrat taking a trip to Russia to observe and perhaps even be instructed by their ways, then you can probably imagine the reaction of a colleague of mine who saw me reading the book.  He commented, “A French aristocrat observing Russians?  The poor man will be bound to say something like,’Oh, I can’t even!'”

Indeed, the Marquis von Custine found himself most unimpressed with the Russians and made that absolutely clear in his memoir of 1839, Empire of the Czar.

I feel for the Marquis.  His father perished in the French Revolution.  His mother survived only through good fortune.  He saw the rise of Napoleon and the attendant uncertainty following his fall.  Scarred by democracy and revolution, he came to Russia in hopes of finding an elixir to the political ills of the west.  Expecting so much, and indeed, too much, the crushing disappointment and disillusionment he expressed should not surprise us.

Obviously one can find much to critique about Russia.  The fact that Custine doesn’t like Russia should not bother the historian.  But Custine’s dislike is visceral and almost hysterical in nature.  Nearly everything disgusts him.  The lay of the land fills his soul with ennui, the architecture of the cities leave him cold.  The expressions of the people leave him perplexed and alienated.   It is not so much that he observes a kind of brutality, but that even the brutality seems lifeless.  He searches for explanations and finds none.  Those he encounters defend the situation by saying something like, “The soul of Russia is not veiled over or explained by any sort of doctrines,” which only enrage him all the more.  Inevitably he returns to his main theme, that Russia has no spontaneity, that all everywhere has a military bearing all the time, that no one ever laughs except on cue, and so on.  He lets himself go a bit and admits for a paragraph or two to admiring the Peterhof palace (pictured below), for example.  But then he inevitably returns to his theme–i.e., “yes it is grand and magnificent, but no one is happy here, one must force every gesture,” and so on.  His main lesson for all French parents boils down to, “If your children complain about France, send them to Russia.  They will return full of love for their native land.”

At roughly the same time as the Marquis went to Russia, Alexis de Tocqueville (another French aristocrat) came to America to observe democracy in action.  Tocqueville created an acknowledged masterpiece, in turn praising, critiquing, and giving deadpan analysis of nascent democratic practice.  Custine’s work strays nowhere near this.  Granted, sometimes he entertains his readers more than Tocqueville did.  His fits of astonishment and disgust provide a kind of comedy.

Though the book has obvious flaws, the Marquis provides something different than most historians.  He offers not analysis but a kind of poetry.  He offers to capture Russia in a painting rather than in prose.  He seeks to provide an interpretation even above seeking an understanding.

I don’t entirely fault him for this.  In fact I think we need more writers like him.  At least Custine dares greatly.

If one is an Orthodox Christian, as I am, one need not absolutely love Russia, but, one must at least come to know the Russians and appreciate them in some way. Their history bears witness to a great wisdom born from a great suffering.  The list of “new martyrs” under Communism is immeasurably long.  Their novelists write with an unmatched power to move the soul, as do their filmmakers.  I think it no coincidence that many of the greatest spiritual witnesses of the last century have been Russians.


Icon of the “New Martyrs” under Soviet rule.

And yet the blunt brutality witnessed by Custine (not so much in specific acts but in demeanor and habits) shows up often in Russia’s history. The horrors of Stalin had much to do with ideology and the particular leaders in place.  But we must admit too that the gulags, murders, and martyrs could not have happened just anywhere.  I once heard an American Orthodox priest sigh and say, “Ah, Russia, a land of great sinners, a land of great saints,” and he said this with a mixture of admiration, frustration, and bewilderment.  Though he has visited Russia on a few occasions spanning multiple years, he too did not understand.

But, though he did not understand, still, he saw the different sides.  So while I don’t blame Custine for his poetic attempt at understanding, it fails–not because he is negative–but because he blinds himself to Russia’s virtues.  If everyone really existed at the level of misery he describes their civilization would have collapsed some time ago.  And yet, they not only keep going, they have found a way to maintain their identity in the face of several disasters dating back centuries, from the Mongol invasions, to the “Time of Troubles,” through Napoleon, World War II, and the like.  Clearly Russia has something that Custine failed to see.

But–I heartily approve of the nature of his project and the way he attempted to understand Russia.  Historians do their job well when they can hone in on something specific and use it to explain the whole.  They need the flair of an artist.  As one historian comments,

My answer is an hypothesis, and it can take form both simple and complex. Most simply: history was—and still is— becoming elusive as well as ever more uncomfortable. Poets and novelists are people whose vocation it is to see and say as much as possible the whole of things rather than their division into categories; they are sensitive to a wholeness they believe to be really there and really prepotent over appearances even if it can be grasped only by synoptic and symbolic vision attending to minute particulars.

When one tries to specify a little more this elusiveness of history, the same hypothesis takes a more complicated, more problematic, maybe even a more dubious form. This form has to do with the amazing growth of the scientific way of viewing the world, and with the corresponding growth of the technological way of changing the world that went along with it. Most plainly, the poets have never been happy under the reign of Newtonian mechanics and Kantian criticism. Their distrust of, their protests against, the consequences entailed upon life and thought by this physics and this philosophy form a major strand in the movement known as Romanticism, which indeed may not be over yet. For it was the effect of Newton to remove mind from the cosmos except as a passive recording instrument, and the effect of the dominance of Kant’s philosophy to remove from remaining mind any access whatever to ultimate reality. Whereas poetic thought can proceed beyond the minimal affirmation of parlor verse only upon the supposition that the world is equally and simultaneously perceivable as real and as transpicuous, or sacramental, and that no percept is ever divorced entirely from concept.

The best historians will not necessarily need gobs of data.  For some writers, data and not conclusions or interpretation form their main concern.  While obviously saying nothing against facts, historians should know how to find the right part that illumines the whole.

I’ll make my own attempt to sum up all things Russian–the banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses, their religious revival, Putin swimming in icy lakes, and the like, via a story from the Russian Book of the Year for 2012 entitled Everyday Saints, which mainly tells stories about the monks in the one monastery the Soviets could not close.  The author relates an encounter between a group of monks and some drunken hooligans, which I paraphrase here.

The monks walked along a country road and came upon a few louts.  The foolish and loud youths threw mud and insults at them, calling them idlers, fools, black beetles, and other such names.

Still, the monks walked with heads bowed.

Then, “Getting no response, the idiots then took to blaspheming the Son of God and His Most Holy Mother in the foulest and most unnatural of ways.”

They stopped walking.  Their heads came up.

The priest at the head of the line stated, “I am a priest, and so may not answer.  Father Vassily is infirm, and Father Tikhon will look after him.  But Brother Alexander . . . he may answer.”

It turns out that Brother Alexander studied martial for years before entering the monastery.  He let out a ferocious yell and proceed to do some serious damage, easily taking all on at once, and leaving each man bloodied and a few with broken teeth behind him.

After checking to see that no one needed to go the hospital, the monks then continued on their way.






Magicians of the Gods

I consider myself a mild agnostic on certain things about the ancient past.

I have no firm commitments about the age of the Earth.  I also have no commitment to the development of life on a macroevolutionary scale, thus I have no need for a very old earth.  As much as I understand the science, it looks like the earth (or at least the universe) has a very, very long history.  But I am intrigued by some young-earth arguments on the periphery out of curiosity.  Among other things, a lot of ‘old-earth’ arguments don’t take into account a cataclysmic worldwide flood.  If such an event happened, geological dating would need recalibrating.

When it comes to the book of Genesis, my commitments get deeper.  I am open to both literal and ‘mythopoetic’ interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis.  We can also combine them and probably both methods have their place.  But certain messages seem absolutely clear, among them:

  • That humanity fell from a state of grace, innocence, peace, etc. into a type of chaos
  • That our sin fundamentally altered the nature of human existence
  • That the change in humanity was physical as well as spiritual.  One may not believe that the lifespans given in Genesis are literal.  But the pattern is clear.  Adam and the earliest humans lived much longer than those at the end of the book.  By the end of Genesis we see that something about humanity has changed drastically.
  • The formation of civilizations happens very quickly.  It is almost the default mechanism of humanity.  Cain builds cities right away.  After the flood we have the Tower of Babel, and so on.

This reading of Genesis informs my reading of ancient history.

There is a version of early pre-history, common in most textbooks, that runs like so:

  • The earliest humans were basically ignorant and violent hunter-gatherers that lived in small groups.
  • At some point the climate changes or the herds thin out.  Food resources dwindle, forcing them to cooperate with larger groups to survive.
  • Because now you have to stick close to water, you get rooted to a particular spot.  You can’t just follow the herds.
  • So, you invent agriculture.  When you have really good harvests, you have a surplus.
  • This surplus gives the group leisure.  With this leisure they build more tools.  Eventually they build governments and laws.
  • As society expands governments have a harder time holding everything together.  So, they either invent religious practices or codify them in some way for the masses, which finishes the development of civilization.

This view is called “gradualism” or “evolutionary gradualism” or something like that.

I entirely disagree with this view.  The book of Genesis certainly at bare minimum strongly hints at something much more akin to devolution, and myths from other cultures hint at the same thing.

Enter Graham Hancock.

I don’t know exactly what to make of him.  The fact that he is an amateur bothers me not at all.  Those very familiar with this blog know of my love for Arnold Toynbee, and one of his main causes involved championing the amateur historian.  He makes no claims to fully understand some of the science he cites but relies on others with special degrees.  You can’t fault him for this.

He also has a restless curiosity about the ancient world that I love.  He willingly dives into unusual theories with a seemingly open mind.  His understanding of Christianity is deeply flawed.  But . . . his argument against the evolutionary development of religion could have come from any Christian.  Many evolutionary theorists acknowledge the social utility and advantage of religious belief.  But, he argues, there would be no obvious evolutionary advantage to saying, “We must take time and effort away from survival, making weapons, improving our shelter, etc. to build a large structure for a god that, fundamentally, we are making up.  In the evolutionary model it makes no sense that anyone would think of this and that others would somehow agree. Or, you would have to believe that the intelligent people that planned and built these temples were tremendously deluded, and furthermore, that this delusion occurred in every culture.  To crown it, if all we have is matter in motion, how would anyone think of something beyond matter in the first place?

Magicians of the Gods has some flaws.  It bounces around too much for my taste, and in some sections of the book the arguments change.  One review stated that,

Speaking as someone who found [Hancock’s earlier book] Fingerprints of the Gods to be entertaining and engaging, even when it was wrong, I can say that Magicians of the Gods is not a good book by either the standards of entertainment or science. It is Hancock at his worst: angry, petulant, and slipshod. Hancock assumes readers have already read and remembered all of his previous books going back decades, and his new book fails to stand on its own either as an argument or as a piece of literature. It is an update and an appendix masquerading as a revelation. This much is evident from the amount of material Hancock asks readers to return to Fingerprints to consult, and the number of references—bad, secondary ones—he copies wholesale from the earlier book, or cites directly to himself in that book.

Alas, I agree with some of these criticisms.  But I think some of them miss the overall point Hancock attempts to make.

When evaluating Hancock v. the Scientific Establishment, we should consider the following:

  • Arguments in the book involve interpretations of archaeology and geology, two branches of science that are relatively young, both of which have to make conclusions based on a variety of circumstantial evidence.  Science usually comes down hard on circumstantial evidence, and “proof” is hard to come by in these disciplines.  But some that attack Hancock do so when he suggests or speculates, and then blame him for not having “proof.”
  • Hancock is right to say that the Scientific Establishment is too conservative.  But, this is probably a good thing that Science is this way.  This is how Science operates.
  • Hancock cites a variety of specialists and laments that the “Establishment” pays them little heed.  I think that some of these “fringe” scientists may truly be on to something that the conservatism of the academy wants to ignore.  But . . . some of them may be ignored by the academy because they are doing bad science.  How does the layman decide when degreed specialists radically disagree?  We may need a paradigm outside of science to judge.  In any case, Hancock too often assumes that scientists with alternative ideas get rejected only for reasons that have nothing to do with science.
  • Some reviews give Hancock a hard time for referencing earlier books of his. This can be annoying, but . . . on a few occasions Hancock references his earlier books to disagree with or modify his earlier conclusions.  In the 20 years since he wrote Fingerprints of the Gods he has “pulled back” from some earlier assertions in light of some new evidence.  This seems at least something like a scientific cast of mind, but his critics seem not to have noticed this.  Should he be criticized for changing his views?
  • His book cover and title might help him sell copies, but it looks too gimmicky, and is guaranteed to draw the suspicion of “Science.”

I wish he made his central point clearer throughout and summed it up forcefully at the end of the book.  But we can glean the main thrust of his argument.

First . . .

Emerging evidence exists that a major comet, or series of comets, struck Earth some 12,000 years ago.  While this may not yet have the full weight of the scientific establishment behind it, many regard it as an entirely legitimate proposition.  It is not a fringe idea.

Many in turn believe that this comet struck to polar ice-caps, causing a flood of literally biblical proportions.  Those who believe in the Biblical flood need not ascribe this as the cause, but perhaps it could have been.  Of course many other ancient cultures have stories involving a cataclysmic flood.

Well, all this may be interesting, but this had little to do with the history  of civilization (so the argument goes) because civilization did not emerge until sometime around 4000 B.C., well after the possible/likely? meteor impact flood.

This brings us to Hancock’s second assertion, that civilization is much older than we think.

The discovery of Gobeki-Tepe some 25 years ago began to revolutionize our understanding of the ancient world.

No one disputes that the site dates to thousands of years before the so-called beginnings of human civilization.  The stone work is precise and impressive.  Recent radar penetrations indicate that even bigger, likely more impressive stone work lies beneath the site.

Here we come to a fork in the road.

  • We can rethink our assumption of early hunter-gatherers.  We can assume that they were far more advanced than we originally thought.  We can assume that they could organize in large groups and they possessed a high level of development and skill, including that of agriculture.  But then, would they be hunter-gatherers if they acted this way?
  • Or, we can assume that mingled with hunter-gatherers might have been the holdovers of a previous advanced civilization, perhaps one mostly wiped out by a global cataclysm.  These are the “magicians of the gods” Hancock postulates–those that emerged from the mass extinctions caused by global flooding, who perhaps took refuge with hunter-gatherers.  Perhaps they had a trade of sorts in mind: 1) You teach us survival skills, and 2) We teach you how to build, plant, and organize.

Option 2 might seem crazy.  It would probably mean reversing our gradual, evolutionary view of the development of civilization at least in the last 10,000 years.  But we have seen something like this already–an undisputed example of it after the fall of Rome.  All agree that in almost every respect, Roman civilization of 100 A.D. stood far above early medieval civilization of 800 A.D.

But Gobekli Tepe is not the only example of something like this.  Archaeologists observe other sites where earlier architecture seems far more advanced than later architecture.  Take, for example, the Sascayhuaman site in Peru, not far from where the Incas developed.  This wall, for example,

almost certainly predate the Incas by thousands of years.  The Incas later certainly could build things, but not in the same way, as the picture below attests (and it looks like they tried to copy the older design in some respects).

At Gobekli-Tepe, the recently deceased project head Klaus Schmidt commented regarding the parts of the site still underground that, “The truly monumental structures are in the older layers; in the younger layers [i.e., those visible to us at the moment] they get smaller and there is a significant decline in quality.”

Some similar possibilities of much older and possibly more advanced civilizations exist in Indonesia and other sites around the world. For example some believe that the Sphinx was built thousands of years before the pyramids.  There is some water erosion evidence that could support this theory.  There is also this intriguing ancient alignment with the Sphinx and the Leo constellation:

If true, this could mean that the Egyptians built the Pyramids where they did because they knew the site was already sacred from a previous era, or even possibly, a previous civilization.

With this before us, at bare minimum, we can strongly argue that the standard gradual and uniform process of the development of civilization should be in serious doubt.  If we accept this, then two other possibilities follow:

  1. Some civilizations went through periods of great advancement* and then fell into a period of steep decline, after which they never quite recovered their former glory.  A massive flood certainly could have triggered this decline.
  2. Another possibility is that we may be dealing with different civilizations altogether.  Hancock ascribes to this view.  For him, sites like Gobeckli Tepe served as a time capsule of sorts, a clue, or a deposit of knowledge for others to use in case of another disaster.  This may raise an eyebrow or two, but one of the mysterious aspects of Gobeckli-Tepe that all agree on is that they deliberately buried the site and left it. Who does this?  Why? Perhaps they wanted this site preserved so that it could be used in case of another emergency to restart civilization.  If this is true, there is much we do not understand at all about this site.

Those that want a tightly knit argument heavily supported by the scientific community will be disappointed by Magicians of the Gods.  But for those that want a springboard for rethinking the standard timeline of the ancient world, the book does very nicely.


*Michael Shurmer of Skeptic magazine argued against Hancock, saying that, “If they were so advanced, where is the writing?  Where are the tools?”  But why must writing be a pre-requisite for advancement?  Or if you believe writing is a hallmark of advancement, what if this previous civilization was more advanced in many other ways? And if they built buildings, isn’t it obvious that they used tools, even if we can’t find them?  If they built them without tools, wouldn’t they be really smart?

Maybe no tools exist at the site because they didn’t live near the site, for whatever reason.  But where they lived has nothing to do with how advanced they seem to have been.  Like Hancock, I’m not sure what else we need other than Gobekli Tepe to prove the point.




The Mysteries of the Monotheistic Pharaoh

I loved The City of Akenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its People. I loved it even though I skipped large chunks of it, and some of what I read went beyond my understanding.  This may sound strange, but Barry Kemp’s work is such an obviously great achievement that it goes beyond whether I like it or not.   All that to say, I do really like the book, and wish I had knowledge and the ability to follow him all the way down the marvelous rabbit holes he traverses.

The book puts a capstone on Kemp’s 35 years excavating the city of Amarna, a city built by Akenaten IV (sometimes known as Ikhneton).  Akenaten has long fascinated Egyptian scholars, mostly because of his religious beliefs.  He departed from the religious beliefs that dominated Egypt for centuries and clearly attempted to change the religious landscape of Egypt in general.  He may have been a monotheist, which adds to the potentially radical nature of his rule.

Differing interpretations swirl around his time in power, as we might expect.  Some like to view him as a great rebel against the constraints of his society.  Some view him as a great religious reformer.  Today, given the overwhelming influence of tolerance, the mood has switched to seeing him as a tyrant and usurper.  I hoped Kemp could help sort out some of these dilemmas.  His book reveals much, and also creates more mystery at the same time.  After reading we get no absolute conclusions.  Usually when authors do this I get frustrated.  But in Kemp’s case, who can blame him?  The historical record is 3400 years old.

But before we get to this, Kemp and the publisher deserve praise for the aesthetic aspects of the book.  It feels good in your hands.  It has thick and glossy paper.  The text and numerous illustrations mesh very nicely.  The book has an almost ennobling quality.  You feel smart just looking at it.

I also have to admire Kemp’s style.  If I had spent 35 years in excavations at Amarna and then wrote a book it would almost certainly have a shrill, demanding tone.  “I spent all this time here and now you are going to look, see, and appreciate it all!”  But Kemp writes in a relaxed, thoughtful manner that seems to say, “Ah, how nice of you to drop by.  If you’d like, I have something to show you.”

So many kudos to Kemp.

But now on to Akhenaten himself.

What was he really trying to do, and how did he try and accomplish it?

Clearly Akenaten wanted something of a fresh start for Egypt.  He moved his whole seat of government and started building a new city called Amarna.  In Egypt’s history this in itself was not all that radical, and other rulers have done something similar, notably Constantine with “New Rome.”  Unlike “New Rome”/Constantinople, however, Amarna appears to be way off of Egypt’s beaten path.  This idea in Egypt means something different than it might for us, as nearly all of life got compressed within a few miles of the Nile.  Even so, Akenaten chose a place rather out of the way by Egyptian standards, perhaps the equivalent of the U.S. making its new capital Des Moines.

Perhaps Akenaten didn’t just want a fresh start, he wanted a totally clean slate upon which to build, free from all outside interference (shot from British excavations in the 1930’s below).

Early Excavations at Amarna

So he was a radical, then?

Perhaps, but in building a city, how radical could one be?  Most cities tend to look like other cities.  He faced limits of resources and experience.  So Amarna looked like most other cities, but a few subtle differences might reveal a lot.

For example, the builders made the entrance to the “Great Aten Temple” much wider than usual temples, so wide that one could not envision doors ever being present.  This may mean nothing other than they ran out of material.  But interestingly, most city-dwellings had this same open feel to it.  In great detail Kemp describes how the houses in the city had few boundaries.  Slaves, officials, and commoners would use the same pathways in and out of the same houses.

Kemp also mentions that the plain of Amarna itself presented itself as very open and flat.

No conclusion forces itself as definitive here.  We can say that,

  • Most places in Egypt had a similar geographic layout to Amarna
  • The houses may have been constructed in an ad-hoc fashion due to lack of resources or time
  • Maybe Akhenaten wanted a really open feel to the front of the Great Temple, but that may not have any particular connection to anything else.  Or maybe they had a plan for very large, ostentatious doors that never got realized.

Or perhaps we should see intentionality in all these elements.  And if intentionality is indeed present, what might that reveal that he really did have a grand vision for real change in Egyptian society.

Another intriguing problem deals with Akhenaten himself.  The most famous statues linked to him and his reign look generally like this:

This one makes him look more thoughtful and perhaps more humanized


Both statues reveal an intense and thoughtful man, given to much introspection.  Or possibly, obsession?  Kemp points out that the offering tables in the temples stood much larger than those in other standard Egyptian temples.  Was he consumed by an idea, or a Reality?  His faces here perhaps reveal just this.

And yet, it is entirely possible (though far from certain) that he actually looked like this:

What should we make of this?

One possibility is that the last image is not of Akhenaten at all, and this solves the riddle by eliminating it.  But Kemp thinks this last sculpture to be an accurate portrayal of what he really looked like.  I’ll go with the guy who spent his life studying the ruins.

So if he portrayed himself differently than he actually looked, it must have been a propaganda tool of manipulation?

No, Kemp thinks not.  Pharaoh’s often had the moniker, “Lord of the Appearances.”  They would be seen by people often, even commoners.  And this would likely be all the more true in the isolated and not terribly large city of Amarna.  Besides, the statue directly above dates from Akhenaten’s time and surely was “official” and not black market.  Kemp often cautions us not to look for consistency in Ancient Egypt, or at least our modern and Greek influenced sense of consistency.

Kemp suggests that the image Akhenaten projected may have had to do with his role as teacher of righteous living.  Certainly it seems he viewed himself this way, and others did too.  This may not make him a prig necessarily, because it was a role Pharaoh’s often assumed, perhaps as a matter of tradition.  The austere intensity of the first two busts (at least 6 ft. high) help confer the image of a deeply felt inner life that he wanted to communicate.  And since the Egyptians loved visuals more than the written word, his busts carry his theological message.

I didn’t buy the modern, “Akhenaten as a religious tyrant” argument before reading the book, and I think Kemp indirectly argues against this.  For one, we find small statues of other gods in scattered Amarna households.  Their houses were small and the statues of normal size.  Given the free-flowing nature of Amarna neighborhoods, other citizens would easily know about the statues.  For Akhenaten to have no awareness of these gods would mean that he had no secret police, no informants, and this speaks against the possibility of ‘tyrannical rule.’  He almost certainly knew about the gods, and tolerated them, however grudgingly.

Or perhaps he actually wasn’t a monotheist?  But then, how radical could he have been?  Or perhaps he had strong views and wanted wholesale change but approached the issue pragmatically.  Neither option gives us a Stalin-esque tyrant.

Other curious details make me lean away from the “tyrant” position.  Cities designed before Akhenaten had rigid layouts and exacting aesthetics.  But as Kemp writes elsewhere, “Most of this city was built around a rejection of, or an indifference to, a social prescription and a geometric aesthetic.” Instead, “organic harmonies” and “personal decision making prevail instead.”  My bet is that Akhenaten may have been too consumed with his religious ideas to really be a tyrant even if he wanted to.

Akhenaten seems to have had a “smart-bomb” approach to religious reform, at least politically.  His main innovation/change might appear slight to some of us.  The Egyptians depicted their gods in at least partial human form.

But over and over again, Akhenaten depicted himself only with Aten, and in these images, Aten has no quasi-human form.  The sun itself sufficed for him.

And this image from the Aten temple . . .

So perhaps in this area we see clarity of vision and consistency of follow-through, as to what it means, I don’t know.  It fits, though, with his overall theme of simplifying religious belief.

Kemp shows us that Akhenaten worked hard at cultivating the image of a good life at Amarna.  Many wall murals show him as a generous provider and consumer of goods.  Excavations reveal that this may not have been entirely propaganda, but Kemp reminds us Akhenaten reigned during a prosperous and secure time in Egypt.  But in 2006 excavators discovered a series of tombs for commoners that reveal high incidents of early childhood death, malnutrition,or skeletal injury.   This could throw us right back to the Stalinist image some have of him.  But the high incidents of childhood death could reveal an epidemic in Amarna, which would spread rapidly in its densely packed population.  Hittite records tell of a plague that spread from Egyptian prisoners of war during Akhenaten’s time.  As to the injuries, I can’t say whether or not this is typical for when new cities get built.  Akhenaten may have harshly driven the people to work harder and more dangerously than normal, or it may have been par for the course with ancient construction projects.

The insistence on building a new city may reveal an element of monomania, but certainly other pharaohs did the same thing.  The pyramid builders demanded vastly more labor from their people/slaves.  Besides, Akhenaten had many critics within Egypt after his death, but no one blamed him for building a city.  This fit within the normal roles pharaohs played.

Akhenaten likely saw himself as a religious liberator of the people.  I see a man with a purity of vision, but also a pragmatist in good and bad ways.  He possessed great intelligence and valued introspection.  I see him dialoguing with himself, along the lines of, “I want ‘x.’  But the people only know ‘y’ and expect ‘y.’  So I will try and lead to them to ‘x’ through a modified version of ‘y’ — not to say that I hate everything about ‘y’ — just some things.” If I’m right, this  inner wrestling match would lead to inconsistency and confusion in his own mind.  Perhaps he lost his way a bit.  “I must have a nice new city to show the people the greatness of the truth,” or something like that.

Or maybe not.  I wish I knew more.  Akhenaten provides a great template for a historical novel.

Perhaps he went too far, but I do think he had good intentions.  Of course much evil gets done with this mindset.  We all know where the road of “good intentions” leads.  But it’s hard to say for certain what evil he actually did.   But he did seek to remove certain key beliefs about the afterlife.  The traditional Egyptian’s journey to eternity had many perils and thus required many charms, protections, and so forth.  All this gave a lot of power to certain priests.  Akhenaten’s tomb stands in marked contrast to almost all other kings for its simplicity.  Clearly he sought in some ways to “democratize” death in his religious beliefs.  I think that Akhenaten wanted to simplify things in general for the common man.  But then again, his tomb contains other traditional pieces, such as the “shabti” — special figures designed to do conscripted labor in the next life.  So even the intense, focused Akehenaten either conceded to some traditional beliefs or really believed these apparently inconsistent ideas.

The mystery of Akhenaten continues.

We know that his religious ideas more or less died with him, and indications exist that foreshadow this even during his lifetime. Very few people changed their names to reflect the new ‘Atenist’ belief, and this we know from the many tombs in the area.  Had his beliefs caught on the switch in names would have also, as happened at other times in Egyptian history.  The narrative that we naturally accept about his attempt at religious change sounds similar to this text from Tutankamun, who may have been his son.

…the temples and the cities of the gods and goddesses, starting from Elephantine as far as the Delta marshes . . .were fallen into decay and their shrines fallen into ruin, having become mounds overgrown with grass . . .   The gods were ignoring this land.  If an army was sent to Syria to extend the boundaries of Egypt it met with no success at all.  If one beseeched any goddess in the same way, she did not respond at all.  Their hearts were faint in their bodies, and they destroyed what was made.

But Kemp shows that the above text doesn’t reflect the truth.  Akhenaten kept open most all the temples in the land, and left his reforms for Amarna.  And as we’ve seen, he apparently let the worship of other gods go on unofficially even in Amarna itself.  So if Akhenaten engaged in political hocus-pocus (and maybe he didn’t) then at least two played that game.

So by the end of the book we arrive where we started.  But Kemp’s extraordinary archaeological skills take the reader as far as they can go.  From here on, one must take a leap into the realms of poetry, which is where History really belongs.

A Religious War that was about . . . Religion

Most modern westerners have a hard time with the notion of a religious war.  After 9/11 many commentators scrambled to find other alternatives to the notion that the conflict had religious differences at its core.  We talked about the relative poverty of the Mideast as the cause, though many leaders of terror groups come from wealthy backgrounds.  We argued that they simply fail to understand us, even though many terrorists lived (and currently live) in western countries and got fully exposed to our culture and way of life.

Quite simply, it may be the case that most of us in the west can no longer understand faith as a motive for much of anything, seeing no purpose for religion aside from something purely private and “spiritual.”

Many scholars of the wars that convulsed Europe in the wake of the Reformation take the same approach.  Whatever the religious differences between the sides, many point to rising tides of nationalism, economic concerns, class strife, and so on, to explain the crises. While all these issues have their place, they are almost always not the cause, but the fruit of underlying religious differences.

For example, let us take the rise of nationalist feeling in late 15th and early 16th centuries.  Such ideas arose no doubt as an outgrowth of the revival of classical culture.  Classical culture meant a revival of the city-state ethos, which worked directly against the medieval notion of Christendom.  Certainly, the weakness of church leadership in the 15th century did little to stem this tide.  But nationalism came from a revival of classical culture, a new life for an old religion buried 12 centuries prior.

Mack Holt’s The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629 impressed me immediately by his simple declaration that yes, the French wars of religion really were about religion.  If we only realized that sanity comes at such a simple price.

From John Wycliffe on down, reformers often focused their attacks on the Mass and the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic feast.  The same happened in France, with the first major Protestant salvo coming with with the “Affair of the Placards” in 1534.  Various pamphlets distributed throughout Paris read thusly:

By this mass the poor people are like ewes or miserable sheep, kept and maintained by these priests, then eaten, gnawed, and devoured.  Is there anyone who would not say and think that this is larceny and debauchery?  

By this mass they have seized, destroyed, and swallowed up everything.  They have disinherited kings, princes, nobles, merchants, and everything else alive.  Because of this, the priests live without any duty to anyone or anything, even the need to study.  What more do you want?  Do not be amazed then, that they defend it with such force.

They kill, burn, and destroy all who oppose them.  For now, all they have left is force.  Truth is lacking in them, but it menaces them, follows them, and chases them, and in the end, truth will find them out.  By it they shall be destroyed, Amen. Amen.  Amen.

For many Protestants, issues such as the eucharist began and ended in the theologically intellectual realm.  Strongly influenced by Renaissance humanists, they believed that truth came via textual analysis and debate.  Their arguments centered on interpretation of Scripture.  Holt gives a clear yet subtle analysis with this incident.  He points out that for Catholics the issue went far beyond abstract theological interpretation.  Obviously they had a theological position.  But for Frenchmen at least at this time, the celebration of the mass formed crucial social bonds between its participants.  The Church placed strong emphasis on not communing unless one had peace with your neighbors.  So in the end, attacking the mass meant attacking the linchpin of social cohesion in France.  It was the mass, and not any particular laws, political, or social organization that made France “France.”  To change the theology of the mass would be akin to dramatically altering our Constitution.

Critics of religious wars today might often wonder why they couldn’t all just get along.  Holt again parries and shows us the coronation oath all French kings took, which reads:

I shall protect the canonical privilege, due law, and justice, and I shall exercise defense of each bishop and of each church committed unto him, as much as I am able, with God’s help, just as a king properly ought to do in his kingdom.

To this Christian populace entrusted and subject to me, I promise in the name of Christ:

First, that by our authority the whole Christian populace shall preserve at all times true peace for the  Church of God.

Also, that in good faith to all men I shall be diligent to expel from my land all heretics designated by the Church

I affirm by oath all this said above.

Faced with the “Affair of the Placards,” any French king could either abjure his oath or try and fulfill it.  We can legitimately question some of the approaches used, but should not fault the French king for trying.  He had no other choice, at least initially.

Things got out of hand quickly.  The untimely death of certain French kings left a power vacuum filled at different times with different factions.  Huguenots often converted from the merchant class.  They had money and lived in towns that could easily be fortified against attackers.  It would have taken a dynamic king with a budget in the black to defeat them if it came to fighting.  France had neither.  Eventually, commoners took up the cause themselves, and then things got really ugly, even allowing for the possibility of exaggeration in some accounts.

Catholics and Protestants both committed atrocities for various reasons.  Catholics seem to have perpetrated more than their fair share of terrible deeds.  Holt shows us, however, how the issues that divided them went far below the skin.  Each side fought for a certain theology, and in so doing, fought for different versions of the meaning and purpose of France.

I find understanding the differences between the Protestant and Catholic versions of France tricky, but my best guess would be

  • Catholic France had an agricultural bent, while Protestantism favored merchants.
  • Protestants defined community via intellectual and doctrinal agreement.  Catholics found community in common visible practices and common observance of the liturgical calendar.
  • Protestants stressed the written word, Catholics looked to a more embodied “word” in their mass, liturgy, architecture, sacraments, and so on.

Whatever the overlap between Catholics and Protestants, these religious differences would produce different cultures.  We can imagine a Huguenot triumph perhaps resembling the Dutch Republic, where Protestants triumphed with a similar theology as the Huguenots–though Huguenots never had the numbers to actually take over France as they did the Netherlands.

For various reasons the monarchy never could root out Protestants.  An uneasy peace developed which allowed for toleration and Protestants to have a firm minority presence in France.  Some might say this proves that France could still be France with the two faiths co-existing.

Maybe.  But France could no longer have the same basis of political and social order if the celebration of the mass no longer held the country together.  The role of the king would have to change, his person would inevitably become less sacred, his job more administrative.  In time the brilliant but enigmatic Richelieu stated that, “People are immortal, and so must live by the law of God.  States are mortal, and thus are subject to the law of what works.”  Possibly the emphasis on the text for Huguenots led to a decidedly different, more disembodied intellectual climate, and perhaps this helped lead to the universal dream of a rational Enlightenment.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  In the event that you find your house divided, you will therefore need to find a new place to live.  In our own Civil War, one side triumphed decisively enough to force their opponents to live with them.  In this case, the minority never succumbed to the majority, and so it seems that they both had to find a different house to live in.

Holt’s book reminded me of the quote from Adam Wayne, a character in G.K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill.  Wayne commented that,

There were never any just wars but the religious wars.  There were never any humane wars, but the religious wars.  For these men fought for something they claimed at least, to be the happiness of a man, the virtue  of a man.  A Crusader at least thought that Islam hurt the soul of every man, king, or tinker that it could capture.





Ordinary Men

If you have driven much at all in any urban or suburban area, I’m guessing that you have experienced something like the following:

You are at a stoplight in a busy intersection, waiting to turn left.  You are towards the back of the line but have a hope of making the light, which usually lets several cars through.  By the intersection a person in need stands with a sign asking for money.

You have a few dollars and would gladly give it, but you are towards the back of the line before the man in need reaches your car.  The cars start to inch forward, anxious to make the light.  You have two choices:

  • Stop your car and give the man some money.  This would reasonably take 10 seconds of time, especially if you wanted to look him in the eye and address him as a person.  But this means that you might not make the light.  For sure, it means that cars behind you would not make the light and the intersection would pile up, with a rubberneck ensuing that would take perhaps three light cycles to clear out.
  • Go through the light and not stop, keeping up with the flow of traffic.

If you are like me in the situation I described, you have taken option 2 more often than you might care to admit.

Why does this happen?  Why does this feel like a no-win situation?  Why do we feel such tremendous pressure to get through the intersection as quickly as possible?

Aside from general answers to the question involving the human condition, we need to consider the specific situation.  When driving you enter into an unspoken covenant with other drivers that share your immediate space. When on the road other drivers–and not the rest of mankind–become your primary obligation  One part of this covenant involves being alert at intersections.  We all want to get to our destination.  Don’t be on your phone and miss the light change.  Be ready to go.  This isn’t about selfishness but courtesy to others.  Your primary obligation to other drivers overrides secondary obligations, even those of greater moral weight.  When you are behind the wheel, your fellow drivers get preference over the poor of the third world.

Sure, we don’t want honked at.  But we also don’t want to break the covenant with drivers.

Reading Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men brought this everyday situation into starker light.  Browning focuses not on Nazi ideology, nor the ideologically committed SS thugs.  Rather, he focuses on one particular reserve police battalion and the evolution of most of them into mass murderers.  We would like to believe that Nazi’s committed mass murder because they had a previous commitment to racial genocide.  The war simply gave them the opportunity to enact their beliefs.  This would be safer for us because we do not have a belief that we should mass murder in a racially motivated way.  Thus, we would not slaughter Jews.  But Browning points out that, while beliefs played a role, what seemed more decisive was the particular situation the men faced.  Their actions transformed them over time into mass murderers, not their beliefs.  Indeed for many, their actions transformed their beliefs, and not vice-versa.

This means that no one is immune.  Our beliefs–what we hold true in our heads–won’t save us.

Those that comprised Reserve Police Battalions shared the following general characteristics:

  • They were middle-aged men with other careers apart from the war.  All of them came of age before the Nazi’s took power.
  • Most all of them had membership in the Nazi party, but most all of those had joined late, and one expects, rather as a matter of course.
  • Reserve police battalions were held in general contempt by the SS rank and file as lacking true commitment to the Nazi cause.
  • Perhaps most surprisingly, very few expressed overt agreement with Nazi beliefs about Jews.  Some of them even expressed specific disagreements with anti-semitic beliefs.
  • Nearly all of them had blood on their hands in one form or another.

As the Nazi’s occupied much of Eastern Europe by 1942 they sought to clear the area of Jews and other communist partisans–but most particularly Jews were the target.  Himmler and Heydrich would much rather have had the SS do the work of mass killing, but the army at that time fought desperately in Russia and could not spare the men.  Hence, the calling up of reserve police battalions for this job.

The Nazi’s were smart in how they managed these men.  The first job for the battalion involved murdering thousands of Jews point blank in a Polish town called Jozefow, but the officers kept this order secret right up until zero hour. They let bit of information trickle out slowly, none of it objectionable by itself, i.e., “report to place x,” “prepare to help keep order,” and so on.  In relaying the mass-murder order to his men, the major of Battalion 101 showed visible distress.  He broke down almost in tears, he expressed disagreement with the order, and even gave anyone the option of abstaining themselves from this action.

But he did give the order.

At this point what options do these men have?

  • If you have strong moral scruples, you have no time to organize any resistance.  But even if you wanted to resist, will you fire on your comrades, men with whom you have trained and share a bond?
  • If the battalion refuses to carry out the order, what will the SS do to you?
  • You could take your commander’s offer and refuse to fire on the Jews and be given guard duty.  Does being on guard duty absolve you?
  • Perhaps most significantly, if you don’t do the job, someone else will have extra work.  The army runs on the principle of all for one, one for all.  Your “weakness” means that others have harder jobs and more work.  No one wants to put their fellows in such a position.  The institutional pressure not to shirk your duty and obey orders must have been enormous.

Browning wants us to face the truth that most of us would obey the order. Most of us would shoot Jews, and most of us would find the means to rationalize it.  Testimonies given years later reveal that nearly all of them found a way to make peace with this atrocity in different ways:

  • War is terrible and cannot be redeemed. Besides the enemy bombs our own women and children.
  • Surely this is an isolated, one-time action.  It is horrible that we have this assignment.  But given the horrible nature of this job, these Jews must therefore be particularly dangerous.  Best to just “rip off the band-aid.”
  • Some stood in line and fired, but deliberately missed.  Perhaps they trusted that their fellow soldiers would not deliberately miss, and this will preserve them from the horror in some way.  Indeed, mop-up crews with sub-machine guns came through to finish the job.  So . . . some tried to technically not kill anyone.
  • One soldier even went so far as to say that (paraphrasing), “I paired up with someone who had no problem shooting the women, and then I would shoot the children.  I could not shoot mothers, but I figured, once their mother was dead, I could shoot the children as an act of mercy to them.  Their lives without their parents would be misery.  I could free them from suffering.”

Those that did not join in bore the stigma of “cowards” and shirkers.  Those that attempted to obey, but found that “their nerves” could not handle it, were viewed as those who “tried their best.”  Even Himmler himself said in 1943, that while firm obedience stood as the pinnacle of virtue, exceptions came to those whose “nerves are shot, to one who is finished, who has become weak.  Then one can say: Good, go take your pension.”  Even a small amount participation guaranteed your personal safety, no doubt a strong impetus to at least do something in a token way.

After Jozefow many men got violently ill and many showed acute emotional distress.  We might think that this rebellion of the body as a witness to moral truth would turn the tide and what happened would never happen again.  In fact, many men who openly wept and got terribly ill after the Josefow massacre later became hardened and even enthusiastic killers of more Jews.  Initially, the body rebelled against the mind, but eventually, with enough practice, the two worked in tandem.  Eventually, the SS could trust the battalion to commit larger and larger massacres:

The Numbers of Those Murdered by Battalion 101 in

1942: 7-8,000 (minimum)

1943: 30,000 (minimum)

In between their assignments to mass-murder, Battalion 101 received orders to clear the forests of Jews who had fled Nazi roundups.  These “Jew-hunts” (as they were known) could also be rationalized:

  • The main enemy of fascism is communism.  Many Jews are communists (so went the party line), thus, they are a threat.
  • Some of these Jews who fled now have arms.  They will likely engage in guerrilla operations against our forces.  Thus, they are not civilians but enemy soldiers, enemies too cowardly to come out and fight.  They deserve their fate.

Perhaps because one might possibly find even the thinnest “legitimate” military motive for such action explains why the battalion never had a shortage of volunteers for these missions.  It far more resembled “real soldiering” and may have helped them justify their actions in military terms.  Such missions made them soldiers in their minds, not murderers.

Ordinary Men demonstrates that one need not be an SS ideologue to commit such atrocities.  The commitment to your immediate circle of fellow men, your desire to “do something” for the war, your general patriotism, and perhaps even a lingering sense of guilt that in serving in the reserve police battalions made one a whole lot safer than a front-line solider–thus you might seek to make up for it with brutal deeds– all combine to wreak moral havoc on your soul.  Within a year normal middle-age men without overt Nazi sympathies, without being educated in Nazi ideology in their formative years, without defined anti-semitic beliefs, became butchers on an unreal scale.*

We can understand this if we remember the intersection with the man asking for money.

I think the main reason why we fail at the intersection is the competition between our two commitments, one to our fellow drivers, the other to the needy man.  Throw in as a side-car our selfishness and desire to get home and be inconvenienced, etc., and game/set/match for our values.  The only way to really navigate this successfully is to park the car and approach him on foot.  In one sense this is harder, because it costs us more in time.  But in many ways this is the easier path, for now we need not worry about the drivers behind us at all.  We have removed ourselves from obligations to them and can act much more freely.

Of course the men in Battalion 101 faced a drastically more difficult situation.  You cannot escape blame by opting out of shooting and taking guard duty instead.  Reasonably, you would not (and perhaps even should not?) turn your gun against your comrades and go out in a hail of bullets.  The only thing you can do is remove your uniform, perhaps facing court martial and even death.  Perhaps you could do this if you were a bachelor, but if you have a wife and kids . . . ?  What happens to them?  Can you sacrifice them in addition to yourself? How many of us would shoot?  How many of us would take guard duty?

In the epilogue, Browning quotes from Primo Levi’s book, The Drowned and the Saved, and it seems a fitting way to close. In his book Levi argues passionately that,

It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims; on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.

Such was the fate of Reserve Police Battalion 101.



*Browning also traces the evolution of their anti-semitism.  In time many came to hold the same kinds of beliefs about the Jews as Hitler and Himmler.  They didn’t start that way, but their actions formed their beliefs.







Lawyers, Guns, and Money

In his excellent work on the French Revolution, Citizens, Simon Schama makes many connections between the path of revolution and Romantic philosophy.  They came to associate monarchy with secrecy–secret plans, secret councils, and the like.  Romanticism preached openness to all things, to nature, to oneself, and so on.  Real, authentic, people had nothing to hide.   It made sense then, that real, authentic government had nothing to hide either.

The French paranoia over secrecy, Schama argues, drove much of the violence in the Revolution.  Even simple misunderstandings could be evidence of “plots,” for no true Frenchman would have anything to hide.  For example, Robespierre’s lieutenant Armand St. Just wrote some unpublished ideas for laws that would have taken his ideas of an open society to an absurd degree.  He urged that,

Every man twenty-one years of age shall publicly state in the temples who are his friends. This declaration shall be renewed each year during the month Ventose. If a man deserts his friend, he is bound to explain his motives before the people in the temples; if he refuses, he shall be banished. Friends shall not put their contracts into writing, nor shall they oppose one another at law. If a man commits a crime, his friends shall be banished. Friends shall dig the grave of a deceased friend and prepare for the obsequies, and with the children of the deceased they shall scatter flowers on the grave. He who says that he does not believe in friendship, or who has no friends, shall be banned of ingratitude shall be banished.

But all this wide-eyed optimism did not prevent the Revolution from eventually being run by the Committee of Public Safety, which met in secret.  It did not prevent informers roaming about looking for counter-revolutionaries.

With the best of intentions comes a tremendous and inevitable tension.  We expect monarchies to have secrets.  Monarchs, by definition, are not quite like normal people anyway.  They decide things apart from the people.  Democracies have different standards, which sometimes makes for more difficult choices and an unsolvable tension.

Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA is in some respects a marvelous book.  He writes well and so the pages turn easily.   Weiner’s pours gobs of research into his account.  He has more than 100 pages of footnotes.  Many of his citations come not from other books about the CIA, but from the agents themselves and especially from the CIA’s own de-classified documents.  Weiner works for the NY Times in his day-job reporting on national security issues, so he knows the territory for this book quite well.

Unfortunately for me Weiner rarely delves into analysis and synthesis of his material.  Maybe he wants a “just the facts” reporters perspective.  That’s his strength, and if he added analysis the book might get unwieldy in size.  Fair enough, but in the end the failure to plumb the depths of certain questions make this book incomplete in my eyes.

Weiter hammers away at the CIA, citing failure after failure, blown operation after blown operation.  Their charter called for them to provide political leadership with crucial information that could inform decisions but they whiffed on almost every major crisis.  Their most significant “successes,” such as organizing regime change in Iran in the 1950’s, backfired terribly a generation later.  We had very little success recruiting agents within the Soviet Union and often relied on the intel of our allies.  Internal reviews often pointed out the CIA’s shortcomings, but these reports almost always got buried and nothing changed.

Supposing that Weiner’s basic appraisal is true (which is up for debate), I would have liked more from Weiner on why the CIA failed as it did, but he offers only hints.

Time might have something to do with it.  We are still a young country, with a very young intelligence service.  The British, the Russians, and so on have all done  this for much longer than us and would likely do a better job than us for that reason alone.

I wondered if the level of internal criticism from their own reviews is at least a partial function of personality.  Many intelligence analysts might tend toward pessimism and obsession over detail.  Maybe they would naturally be too hard on themselves.  I stress the word “maybe.”  I glanced through Victor Cherkashin’s Spy Handler: Memoir of  a KGB Officer for a different look and he confirmed some of what Weiner wrote, especially regarding our very poor handling of some of our agents behind the curtain.  Cherkashin handled and helped recruit both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.  He confirms some of what Weiner wrote about the Ames disaster (Hanssen was from the FBI). But he also mentioned some worthy adversaries and tough problems posed by the CIA for the KGB.  His perspective gives the CIA more credit than Weiner.

In one brief aside Weiner mentions that while, yes, the CIA proved almost inept at gathering intelligence, they did an excellent job of using money to buy influence, and they created some really cool gadgets that would be the envy of the international intelligence community.   I am reminded of John le Carre’s quote that one sees the character of a country most particularly in its intelligence service.*  The shoe definitely fits in this case.  We specialize in gadgets and money.

But that doesn’t mean an intelligence failure per se, it could mean a different kind of success.  For example, Weiner seems critical of the development of the U-2 spy plane.  We would not have needed to develop such a plane if we had better human intelligence on the ground.  Eisenhower worried that the plane might get shot down, and so on. True, but the plane gathered important information, some better, some worse, than an agent on the ground would have obtained.  When Gary Powers was shot down it did cause problems, but having an agent captured would also cause problems, albeit of a different type.  We made the U-2 because of our lack of human intelligence, but that doesn’t mean to me that the U-2 symbolizes failure, or is in itself a failure.

A review of Legacy of Ashes by the CIA’s historian, who makes this same point (among many other criticisms), is here.

But it’s in another aside that Weiner gets at the real root issue.  Democracies, he mentions, simply aren’t very good at secrecy, and we’re not good at it mainly because it goes against all of our democratic instincts.  Like the French Romantics, concealment means that we must be up to no good.  And if we commit ourselves to democracy then we need an informed public.  How an informed public, let alone informed public officials, and a clandestine agency should mix we have yet to figure out.  Weiner offers no solutions.  I can’t blame him, as I have none myself.  I do wish, however, that he paid some mind to this tension present in every democracy.

Part of our desire for openness gives the press more freedom in the U.S. than anywhere else.  We have no equivalent, for example, to England’s Official Secrets Act, which allows the British government to shut down almost any story they deem a threat to national security.  The U.S. cannot do this thanks to the first amendment.  Of course sometimes the government lies and the press exposes it.  But sometimes the press gets it wrong and messes up the government.  Weiner cites one such instance during Ford’s presidency.  Ford had orchestrated a dual arms deal to both Egypt and Israel via CIA backchannels.  He wanted to avoid seeming too pro-Israeli, but didn’t want Israel to know about the sales to Egypt.  However we judge it, he had the intention of setting up the U.S. as an international broker between the two countries.  But the press caught wind of the arms sale to Israel and published stories on it, but they had no information on Egypt.  Ford couldn’t say, “Well we sold stuff to Egypt too–we’re trying our best!” for that would expose the operation.

Of course as a reporter Weiner benefits from this access and freedom.  I wish he would have explored this tension. I’m not suggesting that it’s too bad that we have the first amendment, but it’s not an unqualified good. Among other things, it makes life harder for our intelligence services.  Weiner fails to take this into account in his evaluation.

In his Revisionist History podcast renowned author Malcolm Gladwell takes a second look at stories that he feels got neglected by the flow of time.  In his “Damascus Road” episode he looks at an instance involving the press and a CIA asset.  A man named Carlos the Jackal was everybody’s most wanted list.  No one could come close to catching him.  Out of the blue a man volunteered his help to the CIA.  He wanted no money, rather, he sought to try and make amends for the terrorist activities of his past, some of which had killed Americans.  He gave us information that allowed for his capture.

Under the Clinton administration the Justice Department ordered an “asset scrub” as part of the overhaul of the CIA.  How to draw a line between who stays and who goes?  It seemed simple enough to say that anyone who had previously killed Americans needed let go as an asset.

The CIA complied for the most part, but this particular asset was simply too valuable.  He remained on the books.

Eventually, however, a reporter found out about this non-compliance from a variety of sources.  He wrote the story but met with a CIA agent before publishing it.  The CIA representative got the reporter to remove some the crucial details, but not all.  He pleaded with the reporter . . . the details he left in would expose this asset and seal his fate.  The story was published, and the asset was killed shortly thereafter.

You probably guessed that the reporter in question was Tim Weiner.

Weiner argued that if anyone should be blamed for the man’s death, it was the CIA.  They broke the law (a dumb law, but the law nonetheless) and his job as a reporter is to at times expose the misdeeds of government.  He had credible sources within the CIA itself for the story.  He might further argue that he had no reason to fundamentally trust the CIA with its claims, so often did they mislead and misdirect.

I can’t see it that way.  Had Weiner not published the article, or even watered it down more, our asset would not have been exposed.  He played a role in his death.  When asked how those at the NY Times reacted to this turn of events, he said that for the most part it was business as usual.  You move on to the next story.

That argument aside, I find it ironic that Weiner should so stringently criticize the CIA for not developing foreign assets when he himself had a direct hand in exposing one of their best.

Moving on to a different argument . . . I say that “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” is far and away Warren Zevon’s best song.  The song’s unreliable narrator makes this one so enjoyable and so funny.  Those familiar with the lyrics know that the protagonist always goes home with a waitress, and surprise, it doesn’t always work out.  He goes “gambling in Havanna” and–shockingly–finds himself in hot water, then calls upon dear old dad (not for the first time, it seems) to bail him out.  Yet, he remains “an innocent bystander,” who “somehow got stuck.”

Ok, the connection to all I’ve written here is weak.  Mainly, I thought the song made a great title for this post.  It’s a book about the CIA, after all.  I do not suggest that Weiner resembles Zevon’s most famous character.  But Weiner criticizes the CIA constantly throughout his work for losing track of ends and means, for never looking squarely in the mirror, for dissimulation and failure.  However true, Weiner suffers from something similar.  Legacy of Ashes paints with too narrow a brush.

Weiner’s characters almost all suffer from myopia.  Weiner might suffer from it as well.  There is no particular shame in this.  It is a human problem, and not the sole property of spies.


*Le Carre is a perfect example of the principle I speculate about in the above paragraph.  He is the former spy for the west who now is enormously critical of spying.  His cold war novels expressed an ambivalence about the two major sides, while his post-cold war work exclusively criticizes the West in general, and the U.S. in particular.  People naturally assume that this makes his portrayals more realistic, but I’m confident that’s not necessarily so.