Wednesday, January 17, 2018

What's Kurdish for "under the bus"?

The Turkish Army appears to be preparing to throw some additional complexity into the already-eleventh-dimension-chess-game that is post-IS Syria by threatening portions of northwest Syria currently controlled by the Kurdish PYD Party "People's Protection Units" (YPG) armed forces.

The Erdogan government, much like the governments preceding it, sees the YPG as functionally indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK, and clearly now that the Islamic State is off the table and the endgame for Syria appears to be closing has decided to take action against the perennial bogeymen of the states of the Anatolian and the Fertile Crescent, the Kurds. Or, at least, one faction of that beleaguered people.

The YPG was central to the US drive to reduce the physical "state" of the Islamic State, providing the only really effective infantry for that campaign. On Tuesday a spokesperson for the "US-led anti-ISIS coalition" tossed the YPG in the Afrin region under the Turkish bus, noting that the YPG in northwest Syria were not within the coalition AO.

I'm not sure how this will work, given that the same article linked above claims that the Trump Administration's cunning Syria plan includes supporting some 30,000 "Syrian Democratic Forces" along the Iraq-Syria border, ostensibly to continue to hunt IS fugitives but strategically to interdict Iraqi and Iranian support for proxies inside Syria such as Hizbullah.

The SDF, however, is pretty much the YPG with ash-and-trash. The YPG fielded something like 50,000 troops, while the Arab portions of the SDF consist of two main groups, the Jaysh al-Thuwar that includes some Turkmen and Kurds but seldom put together more than 2-3,000 fighters, and the Jaysh al-Sanadid militia of the Shammar tribe centered in northeastern Syria and Anbar province in western Iraq. The Shammar could assemble 8-10,000 troops. If the YPG decide to grab their A-bags and beat cheeks there won't be enough "SDF" to provide an interior guard on a porta-potty.

And this is beside the whole "The Kurds get screwed again" meme which seems to be a Middle Eastern thing and one in which the U.S. plays it's own shameful part.

Leaving the YPG units in the northwest to be smashed by Turkish tanks after coopting them to help fight for U.S. political objectives would be in the great tradition of American expeditionary war; maybe the Kurds can find some surviving Vietnamese mountain tribe Mike Force guys who can teach them the Nung term for "buddyfucker".

Once again we're reminded, not so much of Trump Administration incompetence (although that certainly plays a role here), but of the fact that describing the United States' Middle Eastern policy as an actual "policy" - that is, as something developed with a thoughtful consideration of regional realities and American national interests - remains somewhere between risible and tragic.

Or, as the Kurds themselves might observe; "Bikime te, Yankee! Ezê kuza dayika te sor bikim!"

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Now I am become Death

...destroyer of beverage containers.
One of the more awesome things here in Portland is a place called "Trackers". It's a sort of post-hippie/pre-Apocalyptic-wasteland-skills-learning-center thing, where kids (and adults) can learn to smith blades, skin critters, build boats, track animals, and raise chickens. Plus there's live-action-roleplaying. It's damn good fun, is what it is.

There's also an indoor bow range, which is where I enjoy Saturday mornings letting the gray goose (or, in this case, the primary-colored-plastic) fly.

We used to do this as a family but, sadly, like so many of our other "family" things, the rest of the gang slipped away. The Boy never did have any interest, the Girl still goes from time to time but has little real interest, and my Bride has lost any real impetus to get out of bed early on a Saturday.

So Saturdays it's just me and Subutai. That's "Subutai" I'm firing at left. It's a Samick SKB, a modern Korean version of the northeast Asian horsebow. Very light and small but an easy draw and fires a very flat arrow. I can shoot all day without tiring, and when my eye is in and my form good I can put a dozen arrows inside a dinner plate at 15 yards.

Plus it's fun for trick shooting. This was after a series of "Parthian shots", starting with my back to the target, turning, drawing, and releasing, as a horse archer would who had drawn his enemy after him by feigning flight.
What's odd about this is the number of people I run into on the bow range who don't consider this practicing with a deadly weapon. They wouldn't touch a firearm and consider the gun-nuttery of the ammosexuals down at Tri-County distasteful, or at least faintly louche. Any yet this was the original weapon of mass destruction. While God may have made Man, and Sam Colt may have made them equal, the bow was the first tool that made men able to kill other men without all that chancy risk beating them down with a rock or stick.

It's just been so long since we commonly killed people with bows that we forget that.

People are funny that way.

Friday, January 12, 2018

At ease, disease

So. Here's the thing.

I've spent some time in the sort of less-paved parts of the world we're talking about today.
And I'll be straight-up with you; the term I used to describe them was, typically, "Third World shitholes".

But.

At that time I was a paratroop sergeant, NOT Chief Executive of the world's largest superpower.

If you can't see the critical distinction there, you're a goddamn moron.

Or Donald Trump.
But I repeat myself.

Friday, December 29, 2017

I'm one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

The Bride and I went to see the latest installment of the Star Wars franchise the other night.
Be warned; there are spoilers ahead.

So, anyway, it was...a Star Wars flick. Things blow up. There are lightsabers. Plot holes big enough to drive a dreadnaught through (after one part of the climactic starship-chase scene my Bride asked "Why did Laura Dern have to stay on the ship? Did I miss something?"). She wasn't okay with my explanation that it was so that Dern's sacrifice could be moving and poetic and tragic. She wanted to know why the hell Laura Dern had to stay on the cruiser? After all, all it was doing was going in one direction, and kinda slowly.

What, it's the Twenty-jillionth Century, they got starships and man-made moons and they don't have cruise control?

Hell, my work truck has fucking cruise control.

But, hey. Star Wars. The tech works around the plot, not the other way around.

Overall it was fun, good popcorn entertainment. There's some genuinely clever bits, like this wonderful exchange within minutes of the opening credits. The scene is set with the Imperials in their big-ass starships facing off against the rebels in their little fighters and light bombers, just like always. But in this case before doing the Trench Run one of the rebel pilots - Poe Dameron, our "Han Solo" scoundrel character - opens hailing frequencies to the Imperial flagship:

Poe Dameron: This is Commander Poe Dameron of the Republic fleet, I have an urgent communique for General Hugs.
General Hux: This is General Hux of the First Order. The Republic is no more. Your fleet are Rebel scum and war criminals. Tell your precious princess there will be no terms, there will be no surrender...
Poe Dameron: Hi, I'm holding for General Hux.
General Hux: This is Hux. You and your friends are doomed. We will wipe your filth from the galaxy.
Poe Dameron: Okay. I'll hold.
General Hux: Hello?
Poe Dameron: Hello? Yup, I'm still here.
General Hux: (to his flag captain) Can he hear me?
Poe Dameron: Hux?
Captain Canady: He can.
Poe Dameron: With an 'H'? Skinny guy. Kinda pasty.
General Hux: I can hear you. Can you hear me?
Poe Dameron: Look, I can't hold forever. If you reach him, tell him Leia has an urgent message for him...
Captain Canady: I believe he's...tooling with you, sir.
Poe Dameron: ...about his mother.

That's perfect. That's the sort of thing a fighter jock who's a bit of a dick and scared shitless would come up with to take his mind off the fact that in about thirty seconds he's going to do a Trench Run suicide mission.

It's Star Wars, so, yeah, he does, and things blow up, and improbably he gets away with it. But somebody on the screenplay team thought a little about the situation and came up with a nifty little piece of dialogue to make a point about it, and it tickled the hell out of me.

Here's the thing about this post, though; it's really not about The Last Jedi, but a bit of Lucas' universe that came out earlier this year; Rogue One.

Because a fair piece of what I really enjoyed about the latest outing started there.

The Last Jedi continued the exploration begun in Rogue One, that of the idea of the "force religion" as, well, an actual religion.
Remember, in one of the earliest lines spoken in the original Star Wars (sorry, I can't call it A New Hope; it's Star Wars, that's what it was when I went to the Lancaster Mall to see it in '77 and so what it always will be for me.) we're introduced to Darth Vader as the avatar of this "Force" power, a fearful aspect of an ancient rite shrouded in the mystic past.

Peter Cushing as Moff Tarkin tells Vader: "You, my friend, are all that's left of their religion."

But after that, well...there's not a lot of "religion". The Force, as we see it in the original and the next six flicks seems to be just an excuse for magic tricks, and for Frank Oz and Alec Guiness to get all sententious and aphoristic. There's an occasional detour into what it is - some sort of universal connector, a sort of Internet for the universe only with less porn (one supposes, probably erroneously) - and some sort of vague connection between clearing one's mind and having psychokinetic powers. But it's not really a "religion". Not to Vader, and not really to anyone else in the first bunch of flicks.

Until Rogue One and Chirrut Îmwe.
Îmwe is played by Donnie Yen as a sort of leaner Master Po or a less homicidal Zatoichi. He is a kind of riff on the "blind monk" trope but done with some care and affection for the character. Other than that there's nothing particularly special about him...other than he's a Force monk.

Seriously. We meet him as our plucky band of rebel heroes are gypsying through the galaxy and he helps them fight their Imperial enemies. He's a sort of itinerant preacher and an out-of-the-monastery-work-brother, but I thought that the importance of the character is not that he's a mad monk with crazy bo-staff skills. It's that he actually believes. That's his little mantra in the title. He believes that the "Force" really IS with him. It's an inspiration, not a series of magician's tricks or choking people out when they piss you off.

Chirrut is one of the first SW characters that actually treats "their religion" as an actual religion and, in so doing, makes the point so typically elided in Lucas' canon that this "Force religion" thing IS an actual religion, and as such that inspires people to acts of faith.

And, of course, those acts don't have to be noble. Just like Buddhism can throw up the 14th Dalai Lama and at the same time the murderous monk U Wirathu, just like Christianity can inspire Francis of Assisi and Arnaud Amalric, like Islam can mold the peaceful kindness of Sofyan al-Thauri, the gentle Sufi saint, and the murderous anger of a bin Laden, the "Force" can inspire Îmwe to sacrifice, and Vader to cruelty.

Îmwe can't choke people with his mind, or toss heavy object across the room. But he can choose the hopes and lives of others over his own because he does, indeed, believe that he and they are all one with the Force, and the Force is with them.

Chirrut. He's a true believer, and that's a pretty deep dive for somebody as addicted to pure visual effects as George Lucas.
But he's only one reason why I think I enjoy Rogue One more than any of the other outings in the Star Wars franchise.

For another, it's a straight-up tragedy. Our heroes "win", but in so doing pay an unbearable price. That's war. That's all wars, "good" wars, evil wars...it doesn't matter. For someone, for lots of someones, even victory in war comes at a horrible cost, a cost that is more than some can bear. It was good to see, in the Lucas world where carnage is usually so casually thrown about, the unbearably intimate agony of that cost.

But the last reason, and the most immediate, is that it's Star Wars told from the grunt's POV.
Rogue One is not a "hero" story, at least, not in the classic sense of the Hero Story, no King Arthur going from Wart to the Once and Future King. There's no Luke, no Vader
(well, except at the end, where we revisit the "rebel ship corridor" scene from the original. Remember that? Vader wades into about a platoon of rebel troops blasting the hell out of him and just kills everyone. Thing is, by this time we're so used to Vader stalking around choking people and dueling only with his peers that it was easy to forget why he was so damn scary to the good guys.

To a peer foe like Obi-Wan or (eventually) Luke he was mad, bad, and dangerous to know, sure. But to a regular grunt he was like a goddamn human wrecking ball; trying to fight him was like trying to fight a tank with a wiffle-ball bat. That scene reminded you why he was such a frightening enemy and why having Luke as the Rebel Arthur was so important...)
Lance Mannion saw that and it made him think that Rogue One was a "pointless" story because it was a hero story without the hero.

And, yes, the whole Star Wars magilla is Luke's King Arthur story. Okay, well, with the prequels the Othello story with Anakin/Vader as Othello, but that's a whole 'nother thing and poorly handled, at that.

The piece of worthwhile art at the center of Lucas' tale is Luke and his coming-of-age, his ascent to the hallow kingship. That's the important, central portion of that story, and all the stories, in Lucas' universe. It's the Hero's Quest, and as such the Hero is in the center.

But...those stories are also war stories. I mean, goddamn, the word is right in the title. And wars, whilst they may be led by the Hero are fought by Joe and Molly, whether they're carrying a spear or a sword or a crossbow or a blaster or a thermal detonator. But from all the other SW tales you'd never know it.
(As an aside...don't get me started on the Lucas version of combat; the fact that his land battles were staged purely for visual effect always makes the old drill sergeant in me come up out of my seat roaring "Cover? Concealment? Fire and movement, you stupid $#%!#!@!!??? What the hell is your malfunction? Lemme see your squad leaders right this goddam minute..!")
But this time, for the first time, we get to see how hard those mob-handed battles would have been on the rebel grunts. No wonder the Rebellion was so demoralized; the Imperial troops were good at being bad guys (and another thing I appreciated about Rogue One was that for the first time the stormies in particular and the Imps in general came off as genuinely dangerous as individual troops; like American troops in Iraq, they have all the high-tech goodies and all the firepower and all the logistical support in the galaxy.)
Demoralized? Like an amateur boxer trying to go ten rounds with the heavyweight champ; even when you land one you know it's gonna suck.

So I appreciated this one as an individual GI's version of all those other Star Wars battles. Pointless? Sure. Pointless because to the person behind the blaster-rifle it's all pointless. When you're fighting for your life there's no heroes, no kings or jedis, no glory and no glamor. You do your best to accomplish your mission and you do or don't, you live, or you die.

And, if even in dying, you do your duty and accomplish the mission...well, that's the point, and was the point here; the rebels do their jobs, do their duty and, even in dying to do so, they end up giving the rebellion "hope"...at that horrible cost.

Was that hope worth the cost? That's for each and every one of us, and them, to decide.

But, for the first time in a Lucas-universe flick, Rogue One actually forced us to stop and think about it.

Well done, troopers.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

White Christmas!

For the second time in three years we had snow on Christmas Eve. It says something about how old the kiddos are that they were stolidly unthrilled about that.
The other family member who was less than excited was Drachma the Merkitty, who seemed to take the whole snow business as a personal insult.
The day before Missy and I went for tea at the Lan Su Chinese garden downtown. I seldom visit the garden in the winter; I should. It was serene, an enclosure of stillness within the cold, busy city around us. The garden teahouse was a retreat from the noisy holiday season, as well, the only turmoil the steam rising from the dark oolong in the stoneware cup.
For Christmas Eve dinner I made a huge cauldron of the Hungarian mushroom soup that was once a gift to the city from the funky Old Wives' Tales restaurant. It's rich and thick, full of sour cream and dill and paprika, the perfect winter soup to go with a crusty bread and dark beer; my brew of choice was a Deschutes Brewing stout called The Abyss. It hit like a barleywine and was ideal for some Christmas cheering.
I hope you are with your beloveds tonight. Certainly the history of faiths, like that of nations, suggests that the old grinning ape within all of us can and will use them for our own malicious ends. But beyond those histories faith, like the best hopes of nations, promise a better world than the one we have created. The promise of tomorrow is the promise of the birth of Hope, the promise of a peace that passeth all understanding. That we cannot seem to find a place in our hearts for that peace is the fault of our hearts, not of that promise.

So I wish all of you hope on this cold, silent night. Hope for love, and peace, and happiness, for you and yours.

And...

May all good fellows that here agree
Drink Audit Ale in heaven with me.
And may all my enemies go to hell!
Noel! Noel! Noel! Noel!
May all my enemies go to hell!
Noel! Noel!


~ Hilaire Belloc

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Live Free or Die

Well, there you have it.

All I can say at this point is that if all those idiots who bayed about "Second Amendment Solutions" aren't storming Capitol Hill right now then they can just STFU forever after.

In a true democracy this would result in pitchforks and torches and the Swiss Guard dead at the gates of the Tuileries.

Which is another way of saying that we must destroy the GOP or bow before our New Plutocratic Masters.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Oh, tempora! Oh, mores!

The lunatic stylings of Roy Moore and his fanbois reminded me again what a strange world we live in.

For one thing, it's the bizarre upwelling of tribalism in a world where "tribe" functionally means less than ever. Humans are interconnected in ways inconceivable even a generation ago, and yet “Evangelical Christian” has stopped being a religious faith and become a “tribe”. It’s really as simple as that.

So just like the Mongol who could stop on the way out of his yurt to play with his sister’s little kid before mounting up to go slaughter the Polish peasants in the village over the ridge, these folks have convinced themselves that they are a tribe, and the "others" out there are not just another tribe, but not really "people". It's like how tribal societies usually have names for themselves that mean "People"; the implication being that if you're not in the tribe you're not "people".

To top that off, these gomers have convinced themselves that they're not just a tribe, but a threatened tribe in a dangerous, frightful world against which only deadly violence can protect them.

A lot of this is an ugly combination of human nature – we’ve been tribes for a lot longer than we’ve been nations, or religions, or scientists, or whatever (along with human foibles in general – remember that “average” intelligence means that half the human race is BELOW “average”) – and way too much exposure to electronic media, which thrives on fire and murder.

But, still...the degree ti which that combination drives us to stupid behavior sometimes seems beyond any sort of rational sense.

I can’t remember what the actual incident was but I do know that it was one of the usual acts of distant violence, maybe an Islamic State attack somewhere, that caused a friend of mine to exclaim about how horrible and violent the world is today. She’s a smart person – “above average” – and so I bothered to talk to her about this.

“So…had one of those pesky barbarian invasions again last Tuesday, then?”

“No. What?

“Didn’t get the massive pandemic this week? No Black Death, no whole-family-wiped-out-by-smallpox, eh?”

“Wha…what the hell do you mean?”

“So I take it that your city didn’t fall to the besiegers and you’re not currently being raped before being faced with a sort of “bad or worse” outcome of death or slavery? The famine caused by the summer’s crop failure not facing you with a hideously slow death to starvation? The rapacious king hasn’t taken up half your neighborhood in the corvee again?”

“What the hell does this have to do with (violent act in distant place)?”

“What it means is that we, we in the First World, really live in an insanely, historically unprecedentedly peaceful world. We are almost impervious to common disease. Medicine and public health have made pandemics hugely rare. Massive volkerwanderungs that caused continent-wide death, such as the mfecane in southern Africa or the Gothic invasions of western Europe or the Mongol incursions into western Eurasia haven’t occurred for centuries. We live, in general, under a rule of settled law; we don’t run the risk of a robber baron in Salem looting and murdering us on I-5 between Portland and Eugene. There ARE still horrible things that happen…but to those of us not able to afford our own mercenary bodyguards they happen less than almost any time in human history.”

“But…terrorism! School shootings! Urban gangs!”

“Happen. Yes. But…you’ll note that they happen in little bits and pieces in places all over the world. Remember that until probably two generations ago you would never have heard of those places at all, much less of some awful thing happening in them. Think about it; which of these horrible things happened to someone YOU know, personally. Someplace within, say, three days walk from you?”

“Ummm…”

“Thought so. So the world’s NOT “the most dangerous ever”. You just hear MORE of these dangerous things ever, because that’s what the “news” thinks will keep you watching their broadcasts so they can sell more airtime to the marketers of payday lenders and erectile-dysfunction pills. So your very best option is to chillax and have a nice dark ale with a whisky in abeyance and read something thoughtful.”

Mind you, I don’t think she bought it.

That's a huge part of the problem.

I have no idea what the hell you can do about that.