Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Lessons of the Israeli-Hizbollah War


Now that the smoke is cleared, the blockade ended by Israel and the peace keepers are supposedly taking their places, it seems foolish to waste much time arguing about who was right or wrong in this brief war, or who started it. No one is going to convince supporters of either side that they are wrong, and it will not help stop another one. For one thing, it is unlikely anyone with a strong opinion will be swayed by any contrary one.

What matters most is what the war tells us about what is in store for the Western Alliances in upcoming wars. What I mean by Western Alliances are those countries who have treaties or understanding among one another in which the United States is a central figure, and which, however imperfectly executed, have a determined preference certain enlightenment values such as free expression, democratic government, religious tolerance, etc. This includes, in varying degrees, not only countries actually in the Western Hemisphere, such as the USA, some of the EU and British Commonwealth, but also Eastern Hemisphere countries which seem to have adopted these same set of values, like Japan and Israel. The plural “alliances” is used because not all of the countries are allied with each other, although the United States seems a center for most, if not all of them. Were there ever a third World War in the near future, these countries will be allies.

Some important tactics developed during this war that have been somewhat overlooked in importance. The significance of this war is obvious for Israel, but also for these other loosely allied countries countries. This post considers the impact of the war upon the Western Alliances.

Who won the war?

It is not so foolish to argue about who won, although that might appear petty or competitive to some. If one side wins, it has an impact on whether the other side would want to fight again, or how soon, and effects how other countries treat the combatants.

Both sides in this war claimed victory. The victory” claimed by Hizbollah now seems diminished in the aftermath of the burials and awesome reconstruction tasks, not to mention Nasrallah’s admission that given the consequences he would not have taken the prisoners.

The “victory” claimed by Israel also seems somewhat hollow in considering the perceived loss of martial prowess and the even loss of good will in the world community, deserved or not.

However, it would seem by conventional standards of what “winning” means, that Israel won a decision, to use the boxing term, and by an undeniably substantial margin. It caused far more missile damage, killed and injured far more people, caused far greater economic and social havoc, plus invaded, blockaded and occupied Lebanon, not visa versa. It left on its own terms, when it was ready. In fact, although it stayed months later than many believed it should have, Hizbollah has not dared to continue to fight the occupiers.

If Hizbollah won, as even many in the Western media claim, then it was a quintessential pyrrhic victory, as “one other such would utterly undo" them to paraphrase Plutarch. That this is true is evident from Nasrallah’s belated admission that he incorrectly predicted Israel's response.

Many American pundits were of the opinion that Israel lost, because it did not accomplish its stated goal of freeing their two captive soldiers. This clearly was a mistake on their part, and not just in retrospect. At any time Hizbollah could have easily killed the captives and claimed it was from Israeli fire. The soldiers were more valuable as hostages, and survived. However, they were possibly spirited out of the country beyond Israel’s reach. Had they been killed, Israel would have to come up with another rationale other than deterrence.

Why was this war different?

The message that the Western Alliances should be hearing is that conventional warfare may not be dead, but is so fundamentally altered that the advantages they have had in power is already greatly diminished, and will permanently be so unless we alter some of our strategies, tactics, and more importantly, our approach to maintaining our values while actually winning something. One of the main reasons for this is purely in the hands of the Western Alliances.

The main reason for needing this change in tactics is that there will be no more battlefields in the manner there used to be. Even when the “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq, the blistering pace set by the troops in racing through the country and taking Baghdad was due to the lack of real resistance on a battlefield. The West's enemies understand the balance of power and all of the tactics must change when we stop moving.

After Gulf Wars I and II, the Serbian War in the 90s and even the almost forgotten Britain/Argentinia War, less technologically able countries are simply not going to wage face to face battle with one of the powers unless they have no other choice. Guerilla warfare has gone from being an occasional resistance tactic to now a couple along with aggressive terrorism (attack on civilians) as a main strategy in warfare. This has first appeared in great force in this short and limited war. It has great growth potential.

This is because guerilla or irregular warfare has fundamentally changed. There are two main reasons.

The loser can now more easily kill the winner.

This war is a landmark in that never before has guerrilla warfare been combined with weaponry that can reach the much more powerful invading country and wreak havoc. This was not true of the Revolutionary War, Somalia, Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan or even the first Israel-Lebanon War, all engagements where irregular tactics were used. The battle was on the invaded country's turf and it stayed there, even if the attack failed, as with Vietnam. This latest war demonstrated the change in that important factor as the use of only a fraction of Hizbollah’s reported missile arsenal so ably demonstrated.

This does not mean that countries or groups haven’t committed sabotage in other countries before. The IRA for example, did so in Britain. That’s not news. The difference now is that man and machine can fly and are virtually unstoppable. And its not just for the big boy countries anymore. Now smaller countries and irregular armies like Hizbollah or Hamas (whether or not they control the Palestinian Authority legislature) have more and more access to missiles with greater range and more powerful explosives.

Although the effect of this transference in dangerous weaponry to less advanced countries or groups is dramatic, it was to be expected and should be factored into our understanding as a given in the future. In every generation the more advanced civilization or country attacked a less sophisticated people with more powerful weapons. Eventually, those same weapons would inevitably end up in the hands of the less advanced people, sometimes when the more powerful group had moved on in in technologically, or sometimes even because the weapons were given to the weaker group by the more powerful one through trade or a brief alliance.

One older example of this is the American Indians obtaining guns from the European-Americans who they were fighting. Other more ancient examples are the dispersal of iron weaponry at the end of the Bronze Age, the use of chariots as weapons, and even the stirrup and the saddle.

This transference of technology is already being accomplished in our own times not just with missiles, but with high powered nitramine explosives, unmanned aerial vehicles and nuclear weapons, sometimes wielded by nations that would have been thought to have been incapable of creating or obtaining them only a few years ago, like Pakistan and North Korea.

Like everything else in this last half century, the pace of weaponry transference has quickened. Thanks to the internet, modern digital and satellite communications, and the acceptance of foreign students in Western schools, these technologies, no matter how secret, will be shared or discovered faster than ever.

Anyone who disagrees with this should be put to the proof of demonstrating any valuable technology that that did not eventually proliferate throughout the world. Nor does it matter one lick if is achieved by hook or crook. When they got it, they got it.

You might think then that it is simply a matter of staying one step or more ahead in weapon development. Not so. At some point the destructive power of these weapons becomes so great that it matters little whether one side is more advanced or not than the other. The weaker group, using the last generation of weapons, can kill enough of the stronger group to make any thought of war too painful to bear. We know that this is true since the advent of nuclear weaponry, but it is now becoming true with conventional weapons, and exponentially so. The Korean border is a perfect example of this development. No longer will mutually assured destruction be applicable only to nuclear weapons.

None of this is to suggest that every effort at non-proliferation should not be taken. In fact, it should be heightened.

Winning and liking it?

The second advantage modern guerilla warriors now utilize is to couple traditional hit and run tactics with a great weakness of the Western Alliances. This weakness has grown by leaps and bounds in a few generations, and is now a major weapon in the hands of guerilla fighters. Perhaps first seen in the Vietnam War as self restraint by the West and not particularly understood at the time, it is now fully comprehended as a weapon by the West’s enemies. I am talking about the value we put on human life and our seeming reluctance to actually win.

As we saw Hizbollah do, and we will likely see more of in Iraq, irregular fighters mesh with the civilian population, giving Western forces the choice of killing civilians or not fighting that hard.

The tactic works even when actually admitted by the enemy. When Israel attacked Hizbollah it inevitably killed civilians. The Lebanese, even those who did not favor Hizbollah, and much of the rest of the world, roared in anger at Israel. Only the United States did not condemn it. It did not matter at all that Hizbollah deliberately used this tactic by hiding among the Lebanese, intentionally tried to kill Israeli citizens, or that Israel tried not to kill Lebanese civilians, even using its own small resources to warn them, even at the risk of giving up the element of surprise. The West's aversion to killing civilians was greater than their revulsion of Hizbollah's tactics.

Hizbollah’s actions, though condemned, were not as vociferously criticized -- at least not after Israel struck back hard. Hizbollah wasn't a country and does not appear at the U.N. to take their diplomatic lumps. Using non-governmental organizations to fight wars, much like the Hessians of old, is coming back.

It is hard to see why, in an objective world, that Israel should have been criticized at all. Consider the Lebanese government and people in this war. It is not a surprise that any people, including the Lebanese, will take the deepest offence as being attacked, regarless of fault, and side with anyone who will defend them. The difference here is that the people of Lebanon and the government decidedly supported Hizbollah even though Hizbollah openly used civilians as shields and a propaganda tool.

There is little doubt that many Lebanese would prefer if Hizbollah disarm and nothing resembling this war occurs again. But they made a choice, by not taking the terrible sacrifice to disarm Hizbollah themselves (which they would have likely failed at) of letting Israel face the consequences, and then supporting the terrorist group. It can be argued that the U.N. made this same choice.

Many Israel’s citizens and even its government and military forces, with enlightenment values, obviously felt for the Lebanese who were being killed by Israeli missiles and airplanes despite Hizbollah’s tactics and the Lebanese people's support of them. According to a former Israeli Prime Minister, Israel even allowed overflights of its territory for humanitarian purposes for Lebanon during the heat of the conflict. Israel's own self doubt as to how hard to fight and hesitation in execution, worked greatly to Hizbollah’s advantage in delaying Israel’s victory and allowing the U.N. to stop the war before a more decisive victory.

The opposite of the approach taken by Israel, the United States and other powers in the Western Alliances, is that taken by groups like Al Quaeda, in adopting religious and legal theories legitimizing the killing of non-Muslim civilians and even the killing of Muslim civilians as long as it is in support of Jihad.

These theories should not be analyzed on their jurisprudential merits and it does not matter whether they represent a “legitimate” or “illegitimate” form of Islam. The fact is that it scares the hell out of people. Enemies of Western culture are well versed in our feelings, frailties and fears. Announcing a culture of “death,” however untrue it might be, frightens a lot of people. Western civilization does not now feature a lot of people who even want to have an “enemy” or kill people. We want to go shopping or watch football and bad t.v.

Make no mistake about it, the culture of death is a tactic the same as is hiding soldiers among civilians. You notice that these groups actually get very angry when they are killed, and swear revenge. They know they can not fight us with the traditional tactics we insist on because it is to our advantage, so they fight us with what they have. Terrorism is an essentially psychological tactic, and we need to learn to deal with it better. This psychological warfare may explain some of the seemingly senseless violence over things we see as trivial, like cartoons and speeches.

But, again, these tactics work, especially in Europe, where some countries like France have a fast growing Muslim minority in the millions, many of them angry. The Europeans seem terrified of them and at the same time believe they can appease the most violent of them. You would have thought Europe, of all places, would understand the fault in this. But if there is another successful attack in this country, these tactics will work just as well here.

To summarize, the acquisition of modern technology and a tactic that utilizes Western values is paralyzing us and our allies. We need to take cognizance of these tactics to do something about it.

We need to change our attitudes and fast. That takes introspection, courage and honesty. In a couple of weeks we will talk about how to counter these effective tactics.

To my loyal readers

Before posting tonight's blog I wanted to say a few words to my loyal readers. We may not be the most popular blog, but since September of this year, only two short months ago, we have grown an amazing 300 per cent in regular readers. I'd like to see the Daily Kos top that.

Our regular readership stretches from the Eastern Time Zone to the Pacific. If I can get my one relative in Serbia to read it, we will be intercontinental. I just need something to bribe her with.

You might be interested in some facts about yourselves.

First, not surprisingly, none of you know any other one of you.
Second, the average female reader is taller than that of the average male reader.
Third, recessive genes or not, more of you have light colored hair than dark colored hair.

All of that would be stranger still if there were more than three of you.

More seriously, thanks for reading. I have no really good reason why I do this except that it interests me to talk about these things, and its unlikely I will find anyone who would let me go on like this in real life. It is nice to know someone is looking at it.

I have been trying to alternate more serious with lighter topics. You all have different interests and I realize that it would be foolish to try and satisfy all or any of you with what I write. Hopefully, some of it will continue to interest you.

Tonight is a rather serious political topic, which I will finish up in about two weeks. Much of the last two parts are complete (Damn - is that "are complete" modifying "two parts" or "is complete" modifying "most"? See what I go through), but it was getting a little long and I wanted to post something.

Next week, to be published Thursday the 2nd, is a more relaxed look at one of my favorite now defunct deities and his appearance in our culture in two important ways.

Thanks, again. D

Monday, October 16, 2006

IT'S MY FUNNYRAL (and no, that's not a typo)

This one may creep some of you out, but I’m dead serious. I have been giving some thought to my funeral, even though I hope it will be quite some time before anyone has to go to it.

No, I’m not sitting hear morbidly thinking about dying, but it does occur to me that as we don’t get to go to our own funeral, it might be kind of fun to at least plan it. Maybe people would not look upon death with such despair if they thought there was going to be a really good party going on in their name, and they could feel like they were a part of it.

There might also be a marketing concept here. Just maybe if some funeral home got the guts to let people advertise for a fun (but dignified) funeral party, they would make a lot of money. It could be called a funnyral© instead of a funeral. Once it gets popular, it will spawn an industry of funral planners and even canned funnyrals which you can buy all prepared. Just add pictures and play.

I may put this in my will to make it official, but as there is always a possibility that no one will know where my will is until long after I am dust, or I just plain forget to do it, it is a better idea to let everyone in on my plans ahead of time.

Remember, this is supposed to be fun. Aren’t the best funerals the ones where everybody is having good memories. It is for me. Just supposing I get to look down on this affair, I guess I wouldn’t mind if some people got a little misty-eyed, but no real bawling. I always find that intimidating at a funeral and never know what to say in response. And please don’t do this at a funeral home, church or synagogue. That would just ruin everything.

1. No line to greet the family. A big fear of mine has always been that I’d be on a long line of people saying “sorry” to the deceased’s family, and when it gets to be my turn the bereaved looks at me with disgust and says “ ‘Sorry’. That’s all you have to say – ‘sorry’. Thanks for nothing”.

Every time I tell that little nightmare to someone they nod and say that they hate the line too. So let’s just skip it.

2. It might be a little hard to get the fun started, so once everyone is there, I propose that my daughter, Nicole, read some of my favorite jokes. She loved these when she was little. Once people see her laughing they will feel more comfortable. However, because she always had trouble getting through a joke without laughing so hard the rest of us couldn’t understand her, she can have other members of my family each read one, if that’s easier.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln . . . how’d you like the play?

Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? . . . It was dead

What’s green, bumpy and flies? . . . Super pickle.

What’s the difference between a grape and an elephant? . . . The color.

What did Tarzan say when he saw the elephant coming down the path? . . . "Here come the grapes”. He was color blind.

Hmm. Never realized so many of my favorite jokes had death themes. Don’t worry that you already know the punch lines. You’ll forget them by the time you have to hear it again. I’ll try and think of some more and leave a list, but these will have to do for now.

3. Naturally, there has to be music, and if I can pick the tunes out at a wedding, why not a funeral? Like with the jokes, I will try and leave a list somewhere, presuming I get a little warning, but, just in case my last words are something like “look out for the . . .”, the following are must plays. I need them performed by the following artists as well. No substitutes or I will haunt all of you.

When the saints come marching in by Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye. Its hard to find, but I managed online.

Into the West by Annie Lennox, which you can find on The Return of the King soundtrack. This one is a little melancholy, and I may actually weave it into my goodbye video. But if not, I suggest playing . . .

Just a Gigolo by Louis Prima right after it to get the party back on

And when I die by Blood, Sweat and Tears (written by Laura Nyro incidentally, in case anyone cares).

I’m leaving on a jet plane by Peter, Paul and Mary. This was always
one of my favorites, and I understand written by a young John Denver. Since he left us in a plane crash, its perfect for a funnyral song, even if that’s not what it’s really about.

Goodbye to You by Scandal.

Time to say goodbye by Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli.

My way. This was a tough one, but I think I am going with the Frank Sinatra version.

Thanks for the memories. Bob Hope. Who else?

Only the good die young by Billy Joel. This is really for or my late sister-in-law who was a big Joel fan. If many of you are right and I’m wrong, then I just might be with her when its played (hopefully, they have a party planned up there too), so that would be kind of cool.

4. My goodbye-its-been-nice-to-know-you video. I don’t see why in the twenty-first century I can’t be at my own funeral, at least virtually. I’ll be cremated, so you won’t have to deal with the casket thing, just my scary face on a screen. By the way, note to whoever is in charge of this -- I would like either a nice Chinese black lacquer urn with a yin-yang thingee on it, or a Grecian urn, red on black, not black on red, with traditional Greek god figures. Whichever it is, it will be the best dressed anyone ever saw me.

Back to the video -- I’ll likely mix some favorite movie clips in with it too, ask a few friends to tell a story or so, throw in some hard-to-believe-that-was-me -at-eighteen pictures -- whatever I can think of. There may be few wistful moments here and there mixed in with the laughs. Sort of like M*A*S*H and that was good, wasn’t it?

Wouldn’t you rather remember me having a good time in a video than the last time you saw me falling apart in the hospital. Don’t worry. I will not sing. This will be memorable and fun. If not, well, it’s the last time anyone will have to put up with me.

I guess there is no end to the myriad of ways you can make yourself a really good funnyral. I know its going to sound weird, but in a strange and spooky way, I’m kind of looking forward to it.

See. It works.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?

(to the tune of How do you solve a Problem like Maria fromThe Sound of Music)

How do you solve a problem like North Korea?
How do you catch a mushroom cloud and pin it down?
How do you find a word that means North Korea?
A flibbertijibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! Boomtooooown!

Many a time you know you’d like to shell her
Maybe then she’d begin to understand
But how do you make her play
By the rules of the U.S.A.
How do you keep her from freaking out Japaaaaan!

Oh, how do you solve a problem like North Korea?
How do you keep Dear Leader well in hand?

When she talks we are confused
Bush and Bolton are not bemused
And we never know exactly where we stand
Glowing like a nuclear feather
Careful or there will be ultra-sunny weather
She is snarling! She's is screaming! Here I am!

With Iraq the question was did they have the bomb?
With Iran the question is will they have the bomb?
With Korea the questions is will they use or sell the bomb? Much scarier.

Let's do what's unforgivable to some and look at the mindset of a United States enemy from its own perspective. It is completely surrounded by the world's three most powerful countries - Russia, China and the United States, who has more armed forces surrounding North Korea than it does in Afghanistan.

Between those 3 countries are well over 2000 tons of fissile material including highly enriched uranium and plutonium (mostly Russia and the U.S.) as of 2003, making up close to 12,000 active nuclear warheads. Obviously, the smallest fraction would be needed to pull an Ahmadinejad on North Korea.

Though many of us grew up hearing and believing that Russia or China would love to drop the bomb on us, and they expected the same, no one expects any of these countries to do so now. Korea might, particularly as we frequently say nothing is off the table, including most recently by the President, when it comes to defending our friends. North Korea may have a long memory despite Condoleeza Rice's assurances that there will be no military attack in response to the still alleged test, even if confirmed.

There are some 67,000 U.S. troops in east Asia according to a recent Heritage Foundation report (as of 2005), not to mention the Pacific Fleet.

Another near neighbor of North Korea, Japan, has raised the alarm greater than any other country at the recent reported underground bomb test by North Korea. Despite a recent agreement between the two countries, Japan has its own history of occupation of the Korean Peninsula, and there are plenty of hard historically driven feelings which seem by their intensity unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Japan has requested stronger sanctions against North Korea than even the U.S.

Although Japan is not in a position to militarily threaten North Korea, many commentators have suggested that the testing may trigger a prepared Japan to make its own bombs. It would easily and quickly dwarf North Korea in production, particularly with our help, and, if rumors that it has enough fissile material for 500 bombs are true, would almost immediately surpass China's relatively small stockpile. It is inconceivable that China would let this happen unanswered. Japan today began shutting down commercial contacts with North Korea.

Those are some of North Korea's fairly obvious reasons for wanting a nuclear deterence of there own, whether we consider them legitimate or nor not, and we must deal with it somehow, and sooner rather than later. We cannot ignore Kim Jong-Il's personal hold over the country, his desire to maintain it, nor his responsibility for the death of a million or more of his own countrymen. Nor is this an apology for North Korea's program. Most commentators seem to believe North Korea's leaders, particularly Kim-Il Jong, are either mentally ill, evil, or both. These are givens, but not that helpful in resolving this problem - how to stop North Korea from building Nuclear weapons.

According to North Korea and Iran, North Korea's nuclear program is all the fault of the U.S., which was last at war with North Korea some 53 years ago. Given the amount of U.S. troops in South Korea, it is not a great surprise they still feel that way, even if we believe our acts are purely defensive. "Defensive" is what they say about their nuclear program.

So how do you solve a problem like Korea? Right now it seems difficult to believe that we can eradicate their program anymore than we could China and Russia's programs. We would be more nervous if we did not have historical experiences like the cold war or Hitler's Germany as examples of how economics, preparation, determination and fortitude can stem off powerful despots. Dumb luck helps too. But we must believe we can win this, or at least learn to live with it, just like we do with Russia and China having the bomb. That must be the last option, and only of necessity.

Still, all of those "lovely intangibles" (to quote a line from the greatest Christmas movie ever made) have to be put into action -- but how? Military action seems, unless there is a direct imminent threat, out of the question. South Korea prefers appeasement and engagement, knowing that even if no nuclear weapons are used, and even if the war lasts a day or so, South Korea may suffer the loss of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people from artillery shelling alone, and have its economy thrown back to the days of the Three Kingdoms.

Our experience in Iraq has made it clear that military action by the United States unsupported by the rest of the world's powers would be ruinous for us, unless we were determined merely to destroy North Korea, probably taking South Korea with it. Modern international mores would find such an act abhorent, as would most Americans. Simply, positively not an option. Moreover, the last thing we want is a conflict with us on one side and China on the other, in which the entire world would likely suffer a blow from which it would take decades to recover. Still, the potential for dire consequences if we do not do something gets a red flag.

China and Russia are still busy playing a modern version of The Great Game with us, seemingly ruling out a successful multi-national front despite Ambassador Bolton's suggestions to the contrary. That leaves, of course, only bilateral talks. We had informal bilateral talks with Japan before World War II (not that it did much good, but it can be hoped we all learned something). Not only did we talk with Stalin during World War II, we were his ally.

There is nothing wrong with sanctions, because we should not have to do business with our enemies. But they do not work any better than foreign aid. Many countries understand this. Certainly Castro, Chavez, Ahmadinejad and Kim do. According to one biography of Castro, when he was imprisoned in the '50s, he and the other prisoners were required to wake at 6 a.m. Castro made sure they were up at 5 a.m. Today Ahmadinejad said he would declare a day of celebration if the U.N. imposed sanctions. He will. Iranians will hate the sanctions as will their leaders, but it will not stop them from nuclear development (we should do it anyway for other reasons).

The voices for bilateral talks have come mostly from the out of power left, and it would not surprise anyone if they would claim the opposite if Bush did engage in such talks. Even the often moderate, and sometimes protean John McCain, has castigated the Clinton administration for its bilateral talks with North Korea in the 90s. Only an old foreign hand, James Baker openly calls for them from the right. Many on the left might still be angry with him for his successful participation in the Bush-Gore legal disputes, but his qualifications as Secretary of State during Desert Storm, the U.S.'s last truly great diplomatic achievement, and his service in three prior administrations, gives him virtually unparalled qualifications while Bush senior remains silent. Much more importantly, Baker is right.

Baker insists that we must understand the difference between talking and appeasement. Bush is both right and wrong: right that what is needed is for Russia and especially China to insist North Korea end its program; wrong that we should not step up to the plate if they do not. We are either the leader of the free world or we are not.

Yes, North Korea and Iran will declare victory over the U.S. if they get bilateral talks. Countries are always going to declare victory no matter what, particularly those with few successes. Lebanon declared victory earlier this year after Israel destroyed their country, occupied it and cut them off from the rest of the world. Our politicians and people have to grow up about this. Its sort of like when a little kid stands in front of you and mimics everything you say until you want to wack him - well, you can't, can you?

There has been no stronger, more moral, more disciplined leader than Ghandi in the last hundred years. He always reserved the right to change his mind, seeing it as a strength, not a weakness. Nothing in our constitution, our history or our morality prevents us from changing tactics.

Talk tough, but talk. Bigger defense budget, but talk. Sanctions (because we don't want to help them, not because they will get us what we want) but talk. Bilateral, multilateral, togethor or one after the other.

Isn't talk what we expected from the two sides in Northern Ireland? Isn't that what we expect from Israel and the Arab peoples. We talked to China and we talked to Russia when they were the enemies during the cold war. If North Korea or Iran won't talk, have ridiculous preconditions or act unconscionably, then stop temporarily, until you can start again. If the stakes are so high we must do something, then they are too high not to try everything.

Nuclear proliferation is not going away. Even if it did, the ready availability of dangerous weapons in the world makes conventional war a less a successful strategy than ever. Eventually, we have to talk.

In order to speak softly and carry a big stick, you have to speak.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Even if you absolutely believe in evolution, you might not get much support if you start investigating who are ancestors are? Because the people you are certain know the most, most certainly know nothing for certain.

On October 4, 2006, Stony Brook University began its annual human evolution symposium. The convenor was Richard Leakey, now a Stony Brook professor (more honorary I believe) whose family has discovered many of the supposedly human or near human fossils that make up the supposed human evolutionary record. Also on hand was Phillip Tobias, now almost 82 years old, a self described founding father of the field, who worked with Richard’s father and mother back in the day. I won’t say he’s old, but he should have began by saying “I knew Homo habilis, Homo habilis was a friend of mine . . . .”. Actually, he was amazingly cogent and brilliant and it was great listening to him.

The speakers were split into two groups. First, in the morning the old guard, Leakey and Tobias, as well as a Leakey protege, Bernard Wood, discussed the early fossil discoveries in Olduvai Valley, Tanzania, and more broadly, how little we actually know about these possible ancestors. The afternoon was dedicated to three relatively younger speakers, from related fields who demonstrated their theories of what we can surmise from the little we do know.

The topic of the morning, particularly Professor Wood’s discussion “Where Does the Genus Homo Begin, and How Would We Know” explored the vast holes in the prevailing theories. Virtually nothing is even relatively certain except that there are old bones, possibly from ancestors, from roughly 1.6 to 2.2million years ago, hewed out of African rock and mineral. Apparently, according to Professor Wood, you could take all the known fossils from the four creatures (if they are actually different) who are our possible ancestors, and store them in one carry-on bag, with room left over for a bottle of whiskey. Using a power point demonstration (watching the difference in familiarity with the relatively new technology between the older and younger speakers was an unintended highlight”) Tobias demonstrated how he recreated the likely skull of Homo habilis (“able man”) from tiny broken pieces in the early 60s. Although there are a couple of relatively complete skeletons around, when you see these complete looking skulls and bones, you are more often looking at much Plaster of Paris and a little bit of bone.

It would be unfair to say that paleontologists don’t know anything about our origins. As Professor Wood said, responding to my own question, “Professor Tobias knows more about the morphology of (ancient man) . . . .”, but it wasn’t clear from his answer what it was Tobias knew for sure. Probably there wasn’t time, and likely my question was too broad to really answer without giving another long lecture. Like most science and other specialties, the language of the field quickly becomes arcane, and there is only so far that lay persons can follow without it.

The morning was not without its drama. Tobias was quite concerned about clearing up what he called the myth that Louis Leaky (Richard’s father, and perhaps the founding father) had hammered away at him with his instinctual decision that habilis was a new species. Tobias’ own recollection, was that Louis did hammer away at him, as was his habit. However, it did not convince him. He described how he slowly pieced together his growing understanding based on Leakey’s findings as well as others involving the skull, jaw, hands and feet, and concluded Leakey was right some five years after the discovery. Regrettably even a revered octogenarian may still be plagued with the same jealousies, misunderstandings and feelings as we all are. It was a lesson more aptly demonstrated than anything you could have learned about paleontology that day. For the record, I believed him, and I would guess everyone else did too.

When Leakey spoke, he directly addressed Tobias, but some spoken tension clearly exists between Tobias, a founding father, and Leakey, a “founding great grandchild” that Leakey addressed. But he said he would do it in a kind way, as Tobias had done with respect to Leakey’s own family. Little more could be learned of this tension, but it appears it was this. Tobias who long labored, and at some risk to his reputation (it was roughly 20 years before his confirming of Leakey’s theory was generally accepted) seemed humbly, but fairly wedded to this theories. Leakey, despite the fame those theories have brought him and his family, openly declared his willingness to throw it all up in the air and consider whether they were all wrong. Doubtlessly, Tobias’ grandfatherly presence in the audience, was occasion for tender steps by Leakey, no youngster himself. There were no flamethrowers present among the speakers, just congenial peers.

Several days of non-public discussions in the home of a benefactor were in front of the participants. That would seem a much more interesting show than what passes for reality on television, to nerds and dweebs at least, the only group I proudly claim membership in. Unfortunately be secluded away from it all to focus on the scientific issues at hand, would probably preclude being filmed. Too bad.

The day after the conference’s opening, I e-mailed the following question to Professor Wood, the rest of the correspondence closely resembling a soppy love letter from a paleo-groupie. Note to the uninitiated in reading this question below – pan is a chimp; ergaster and habilis are possibly early humans up for membership in the Genus Homo, that is the same group as Homo sapien -- us.

“Imagine we could go back in time and actually meet ergaster and habilis, presuming they are different species, and could somehow obtain perfect knowledge of them. Suppose it turned out that ergaster was exactly like modern day humans in appearance and anatomy, differing only in the inability to learn a language, and habilis more closely resembled pan than H. sapien, but was just as capable of learning speech as we are. It is my bet that even with that hypothetically perfect knowledge, some experts would argue that ergaster was Homo, some that habilis was, some neither, and some both. If, in your opinion, I would likely win my bet, then is answering the question of where Homo begins, no matter what degree of knowledge we can obtain, more a matter of simply deciding which paleontologist is deemed most authoritative at any given time? Or, to put it another way, is it a little, or maybe a lot, like determining that Pluto is no longer a planet or that Sedna is? Or is there some point where questions involving the distant past can be said (and I’m borrowing this next concept from law) to be answered with a reasonable degree of paleontological certainty, as perhaps we can say of some physics or biology of living creatures”.

What I was trying to get at is whether there are some studies which can only lead to educated opinions that likely will never be proved or disproved. Darwinism, or evolution, is a theory most often held up to question, particularly of late. The conference did not concern itself with whether evolution exists. It assumed it. Lay persons may have more difficulty in saying whether evolution will ever arise out of its infancy, doomed by the antiquity of its subject matter to finding any final answers. There may be no smoking gun or Manhattan Project for it, even with all the promise the greater understanding of genetics brings to the field There are many open questions about evolution that have nothing to do with creationism or intelligent design. Astronomers, dealing with billions, not just millions of years, seem more confident in considering the beginning of everything, than paleontologists do in considering the beginnings of man.

The paleontologists and other scientists at the conference should be congratulated, not sneered at, for the immense difficulty of their task. Tobias’ own patient studies since 1959 alone (not the beginning of his career, but the first major Leakey finding), is a remarkable achievement. If this field of study does no more than raise new questions, or moves the ball even a little bit, it will be worth it, at least to some of us. Those who believe it

Journalists love to end their pieces with some form of . . . “One thing is for certain . . .” . So, bowing to convention . . . one thing is for certain -- the lunch I was treated to by virtue of being a pre-registered conference attendee and the lowest form of staff at Stony Brook (an adjunct instructor), was sensational. Long live the Wang Center at Stony Brook University.

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .