Monday, July 30, 2007

The Battle of the Crater

In 1983 I made a trip down to Virginia to visit a girlfriend serving in the Army JAG Corp. We took a tour of the Petersburg civil war battlefield, where Lee held Grant off for the better part of a year by digging in and fortifying his position.

The preserved battlefield, a national park, was in some respects ahead of its time. At various sites it had a push button recording which told you what had gone on at the spot upon which you were standing. One of these recordings stood out for me.

There was a depression in the ground there, completely covered with grass, as was most of the whole battlefield. Not all that deep or wide or long, it was, nevertheless, distinctive from the ground around it. It does not photograph well, as it just looks like a dip in the land you might see on someone’s large property. But the taped story told me of the Battle of the Crater, which I have never forgotten, and which, in no small part, inspired my interest in the Civil War for the next quarter century.

There is a moral here too, one you already know, possibly best stated by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, who often wrote about, and was, a soldier, this way:

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley.” (often go awry)

Petersburg, in 1864, was no newcomer to battles. There had been one near the end of the Revolutionary War. With Grant slowly and painfully pressing Lee back towards the capital, the two sides settled in to a long siege there which lasted from June, 1864 until April, 1865. When Petersburg eventually fell at the beginning of that fateful month, effective resistance by the South crumbled. The War ended (and Lincoln’s life) soon thereafter.

The importance of Petersburg was in its five railroad lines and the fact that it was also the key to taking Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital. In fact, although called the siege of Petersburg, the lines ran for some 20 miles, from Cold Harbor on one side, practically all the way to Richmond on the other.

The city itself was highly integrated with a very high percentage of free blacks as well as slaves. Many of them participated in defending the city against the initial Union attack.

The enemy lines were quite close in spots. At one point known as Elliot’s Salient they were camped a mere gunshot away from each other, each army behind their own fortified lines, and every soldier wary to keep his head down. A couple of South Carolinian regiments and some gunners manned the little fort at the salient for the Confederacy.

Despite his reputation for simply throwing his men into battle, Grant had learned a severe lesson at Cold Harbor when he had his men attack Lee’s fortified position. That brutal battle and casualties, as well as the early days of the Petersburg siege itself caused him to take stock, attack here and there, engage in trench warfare, and patiently waited for his chance to take the city.

A lieutenant colonel by the name of Henry Pleasants, a Pennsylvania engineer originally born in Argentina, was leading the 48th Pennsylvanians, made up to some degree by coal miners like himself. One day, while out walking, he apparently overheard one or more of his men describing how easy it would be to mine beneath the salient and blow the Southerners up. He thought it was a great idea, and reported it to his commander, General Ambrose Burnside (the very one for whom sideburns are named – apparently not a myth, although it sure seems like it would be).

Burnside was not a great general, but then again, his performance was fairly in line with that of other Northern generals in the East in the first years of the war. Because of his military failures his overall life is often overlooked, and is fairly impressive. Among other things, he was a successful soldier, including an officer in the Mexican American War, a commanding officer of the Army of the Potomac for a while, an Indian fighter in the West, a gun manufacturer, both a governor and Senator of Rhode Island, and a railroad executive. He was also the National Rifle Association’s first president.

At the time of the siege, he had suffered some terrific and important defeats. Athe commander of IX Corp under the Army of the Potomac, he reported Pleasants’ idea to General George Meade, who reported it to his superior, General Grant. They decided to go ahead with the project, but, in truth, neither Meade nor Grant gave it much chance of success.

The plan was actually quite good and, if executed correctly, could have meant a quick victory and saved eight months or more of war. Barely a quarter mile away from where the explosion would occur was the road leading to Cemetery Hill, which overlooked Petersburg itself. Had the North broken through and captured those heights it all would have been over very quickly.

Pleasants and his team of miners went ahead with gusto although they were starved of supplies. They dug straight ahead underneath the Southern lines for over 500 feet, improvising the whole way in order to support the tunnel and provide ventilation while trying to hide what they were doing.

When they had proceeded far enough they dug a perpendicular line at the end so that the tunnels formed a T. The sounds of digging underground did not go unnoticed by the Southerners. At first General Lee refused to believe it and waited a couple of weeks before countermines were ordered to be dug to find the Northern tunnels. The Southerners, not miners by trade, were unable to do so. After a while, however, they stopped trying, believing that there was no way in which the Union miners could ventilate such a long shaft. By some novel and ingenious methods, the miners had managed to do it.

However, one intelligent Southern officer had his men build a second line behind the first, just in case the tunnel was successful. Although not with any great effect, it was not the first time that a plan like this had been tried in the war (in fact, Grant had tried, without any luck).

Finally, the mine was completed. A few days later General Meade gave the go ahead to pack it with gun powder. In all four tons of explosives contained in 320 barrels were packed in about 20 feet beneath the South’s lines. The main line was tamped with over ten feet of sand and dirt to prevent the explosion from escaping out the main shaft into the North’s position, and to direct it straight up.

On July 28th, the mine was ready. Two days later, July 30th, which happens to be 143 years ago today, Pleasants gave the order to light the fuse. He went to a prepared location to watch, much as the physicists would do at Los Alamos some 4 score years later. Unlike Los Alamos, nothing happened. It became obvious that the fuse must have sputtered out. It was not surprising, as most of the fuse they were given was of very poor quality and was actually spliced together by the miners.

Undoubtedly with lumps in their throats two of the miners volunteered for the mission of going into the tunnel and seeing what went wrong. They found a spot where the 98 foot long fuse made from old rope was broken and spliced it together again. Then they lit the fuse again and vamoosed out of the tunnel.

A little before 5 in the morning a horrific explosion rocked the Southern lines. Approximately 360,000 cubic feet of dirt flew into the air along with 200 foot high flames, white smoke, wood, red clay and the body parts of the South Carolinians who had the misfortune to be stationed there, nearly 300 who instantly died in what was probably the biggest man made explosion ever known to that time.

Here’s where the best laid plans of men went awry. Hand picked for the honor of rushing in and taking advantage of the calamitous explosion was a division of black troops under the direction of Brigadier General Edward Ferrero. The men were extremely excited about their mission and had been trained to run along the edges of the mine and then to extend the lines further into the camp, eventually securing Cemetary Hill. White troops were to rush into support and flank them.

Meade, who had been made nervous by the scrutiny of congress since his failure to quickly follow up after the victory at Gettysburg the year before, inserted himself into the drama just before the attack by calling off the black troops. Foreseeing something bad happening, he didn’t want a frontal assault by black troops going wrong, with him getting accused of sacrificing them, and ordered Burnside the day before the assault to send in different troops. Although Burnside tried to get Grant to change the order, he agreed with Meade.

Burnside must have been rather disgruntled. He should get some credit for earlier stepping aside his precedence in rank to let Meade be his commander, although he initially resisted it and had to be convinced by Grant. He was not unaware of his lack of military greatness and had several times turned down the post as commanding general of the Army of the Potomac before accepting it. In response to Meade, Burnside ordered the commanders of the white troops to draw lots to see who would lead the troops after the explosion. The winner or loser, depending how you look at it, was Brigadier General James Ledlie. Unfortunately, there could not have been a worse choice. Ledlie neglected to mention to his troops what was expected of them, and then proceeded (reputedly) to drink himself into a stupor and leave the scene of the battle before it occurred.

Consequently, after the explosion, and a strange delay by stunned and overawed troops on both sides, the untrained first division went pouring into the gap. In a scene which could only be prophetic of “F” Troop, the division, rather than run around the edges of the crater, ran straight into the smoking mess, thinking they would find good hiding places from which to shoot.

It was easy for the troops to get into the pit, but hard to get out of it. In some places the men had to turn their backs to the wall in order to get footing by digging their heels in. However, the first Southern troops to attack were not prepared and were actually mowed down by the Federal troops.

When word reached Lee of what had occurred, he sent for one of his best leaders, Major General William Mahone, who arrived at the scene with two brigades, while Lee set off on his famous horse “Traveler” (whose touching grave you can visit near Lee’s in Lexington, Virginia, on the Washington & Lee campus) to watch the battle from a distance.

Unable to advance much beyond the crater many thousands of Union troops were crushed together in and around it. This resulted in what was called a “turkey shoot” by General Mahone, who gathered his men around the pit hours after the explosion, and watched them happily pick off the Northerners with rifles and blast them with cannon.

However, not all of the killing was done by bullets and cannon balls. "This day was the jubilee of fiends in human shape, and without souls" said one surviving Southerner describing the bayoneting and clubbing that went on.

To make the disaster even worse, Burnside, probably smoldering that his advice wasn’t listened to, sent in the black troops to the rescue last, but instead of following their plan, they were fairly trapped into following the white troops into the pit. More Southern troops surrounded the hapless Northerners and simply massacred them. Although the Northern troops fought back, they killed few more Southerners than had died in the blast itself.

So certain of victory had been Burnside, that his orderlies had already packed his bags for him so that they could proceed to Petersburg quickly after victory. When he was ordered to have his men retreat, he delayed giving the order for at least three hours. By then, tragedy had occurred.

Eventually a truce was called (I have read anywhere from 1 p.m. on July 31st to 5 a.m. on August 1) so that both sides could bury their dead. Despite the miserable fighting, men mingled from both sides in collecting their wounded and burying the dead. Both sides set up their bands near the crater to alternate playing music for the surviving soldiers. Many Northern prisoners had already been taken behind Southern lines, including many anxious black Union soldiers who were supposed to have been the heroes of the day.

After the battle, Burnside was sacked (and about time) as was Ledlie, who had hidden in a shelter for the entire battle. Grant referred to it as the saddest thing he had seen in the war. Pleasants, however, was not blamed (not an unlikely situation in this war – one general had been jailed after a friend of Lincoln’s under his command had died after making an error in battle). He was made a brevet (as opposed to permanent) brigadier general for the duration.

There were about 360 Southerners dead with still more wounded or missing, totaling roughly 1500 casualties. There were well over 500 Northerners dead with far more wounded and missing, totaling over well 4000. In all, Northern losses were roughly two and a half times that of the South.

The Battle of the Crater happened near the beginning of the siege, but it could have been the end of it, if politics and poor execution did not get in the way. War rarely goes as planned, and this battle is one of the prime examples of the phenomena. It’s also, despite the tragedy and suffering, another fascinating civil war story too infrequently told.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Political Update for July, 2007

Did you ever type a blog post out and then not be able to find where you save it? Happened this week. Its to your benefit because this draft is a page shorter.

McCain

We all know why McCain had dropped down to nearly single digits in the polls. The right will not forgive him for past offenses, and their are other candidates who may not be as conservative as he is (Giuliani, Romney), but they have made it clear that they will play ball. Look at Giuliani's waffling (and, lets face it, flip flopping) over abortion. However, he is committed to sending more "strict constructionist" judges, which means, pro-prosecution and anti-abortion judges. The right hears and understands. There are no similar statements that McCain can make which will do the same for him. Even hugging Jerry Falwell didn't work (and that was, as he acknowledged humorously, pandering).

McCain’s mistake is the same as the mistake most Americans make. He has married himself to one of the two parties and feels trapped with his partner no matter how it changes or what it does. While his political spouse (no, not Cindy McCain – the Republicans) can no longer stand him to a large degree, he feels compelled to stick with him.

And yet, there is evidence that if McCain had given himself a political divorce without changing one opinion, he would have been the first successful independent candidate to run for president.

Of course, there is lots of evidence against it, including that no third party candidate has won (despite that Sam Waterston is running around saying that Abraham Lincoln did -- the Democratic Party split up for the 1960 election and the fairly new Republican Party, of which Lincoln was the candidate, was the other major party), or really come close. But, under the right circumstances, lots of candidates could have won as independents. Just as an example, TR angered Republicans back in the early 1900s. He was a real Republican but he was also a progressive and combated big corporations and trusts. Although he could not pull it off in 1916 when he was long retired, I believe he would have easily won in 1904 no matter how he ran.

Why do I think McCain could do it? One, I always thought he could of have won as an independent, even way back in 2000 when social conservatives destroyed his campaign to be the Republican nominee, not without a few dirty tricks.

But, also because, a recent poll, which asked not just who the subjects would likely vote for, but also who they might possibly vote for, catapulted McCain to the top position of all candidates, just above Giuliani, who is far above him in every other poll.

What does it mean? Practically speaking, nothing. He’s not going independent and his independent streak about core conservative issues (like immigration, campaign reform) is a one way ticket back to the Senate. But, theoretically, it means that if presidential elections were run like contested conventions, McCain would very likely be the candidate that most people would be satisfied with, even if the people running both parties would be disappointed.

I recognize I am biased because I like him and it colors my impressions during debates and in predictions. I do think he is more honest that most politicians (an incredibly low bar measured with a micrometer), although I am so cynical at this point, I don’t even know what to make of his stand on Iraq (is it a truly principled decision or was it to show the right that he will support Bush no matter what). He is more likely to at least listen to the other side and strike a compromise, than any other candidate (all 16 of the ones left who get in the debates).

Philosophically, I actually am more in tune with Giuliani than McCain, but I believe that he is temperamentally unsuited for president for reasons I have stated before, and, McCain is not.

Admittedly, my McCain pick has few legs, and he may be completely out of it soon, even before the first primaries, but I will stick with him for two reasons. One, who cares if I am wrong? Second, if I am right, I look like a genius and will be crowing about it until the day I stop writing this blog.

My other predictions don’t look so bad. I won’t bother with my brilliant pick of either Hillary or Obama for the Democratic nominee, because, you know – d’uh. But Richardson still looks poised for a VP spot. Although he is running a good race for someone with no money, no constituency and no name recognition, he has managed not to piss off the two front runners, which is harder. I do not see a Clinton-Obama ticket, as many others do. Obama will want to use the experience to bolster a 2012 or 2016 run, not crawl into oblivion at his young age as the VP,

My Republican VP picks, Mike Huckabee and Duncan Hunter, are still in the race but going nowhere. If they are smart, once someone looks like a sure winner after February 5th, or even earlier, they should throw their support to them and see if they can lock the second spot up. Personally, I like Michael Steele of Maryland for Republican VP, as he strikes me as a level headed guy. Besides that, he is black, and that might steal a march on the Democrats who are almost certainly going to nominate either a women or a black or both for the two spots.

Should she or shouldn’t she -- the Harriet Miers affair.

I have almost stopped paying attention to the Democrats political Gonzalez hunt concerning the U.S. Attorneys firing. Having watched the hearing tonight (after a first draft of this post was published) I can only say that I have never thought to see such a high ranking official testify so badly, and seem to have such a lack of credibility. Prior to this, I offered the opinion that this was a waste of time, and was designed only to harass the president, even though Gonzales' testimony on prior occasion already was abysmal. Even before, I stated that no one who testifies as badly as he does should be attorney general. We have gone beyond that.

My discontent has grown. The questioning and some of the answers show this to be a justice department in deep trouble and probably politically corrupt to an alarming degree. I may watch the hearing again (thank you, C-Span) and give a more detailed opinion. But it shook me. Gonzales made it clear that he is not the attorney general so much as the President's counsel. Shameful. His defense of his visit with Andrew Card to former AG Ashcroft's sick bed appeared so deceptive as to be beyond belief. If he is telling the truth, then others will confirm it. I doubt it. He would not, without even claiming whether Bush had sent him, merely say he went on his behalf. That an attorney general, without any privilege offered, and with duties independent of service to the president, should refuse to answer this question was stunning to me. It did not, but could have called for a oontempt motion itself.

Beyond that, the revelation to me at least, that Ashcroft had opened the doors to the White House staff and the VP's office and many others to learn information concerning criminal and civil prosecutions, violating a long history of keeping the matters to a small group of high officials in the past, seemed shocking even to Gonzales, who could only say that he was very concerned too, and that these were good questions.

The Republicans on the committee all but boycotted the hearing and the tough questioning was almost all by the left. That is difficult to swallow after the difficult time Republicans gave to Janet Reno and their calls that she resign for nothing that could be remotely placed in fair comparison to this steady flow of misstatements and governmental mismanagement on crucial issues. If Republican Senators didn't question him because they were embarrassed for their party I could almost understand. But at this point, they should act like Senator Goldwater when he went to the White House and told Nixon it was over. I'm not suggesting that anyone have this conversation with Bush, but with Gonzales. Arlen Specter, a fair man (and he has long earned my forgiveness for his admittedly deplorable comments during the Clarence Thomas hearings), pretty much said this to Gonzales at the end. Hearing it from a Republican was much more effective than hearing Senator Leahy tell him how disappointed he was in him.

Anyone who can defend Gonzales should -- although the Republican Senators didn't seem to feel they could -- but they should watch the hearing first. This is a product of the take no prisoners, politics is everything attitude most of us find revolting, and Gonzales will likely carry this shame to his grave. I am sorry for him because he really seems like a nice guy, someone I would like as a friend. But he is the president's man through and through, and that is not his job anymore.

Getting to the point, should Meirs have to testify, or, does the “executive privilege” exercised by the president trump congress' investigative powers? There is no decisive answer until we are told by the court what it might be.

In U.S. v. Nixon, Justice Burger, writing for the majority, determined that the constitutional underpinnings of Grand Juries and there mission in investigating crime, was so important that executive privilege, a concept which is not found in the constitution, but which has its own bona fides going back to G. Washington (albeit under a different name) had to be based on a real national security concern. Here, the court’s options are to determine that –

- congress’ constitutional right to investigate (also not in the constitution but as valid judicially as executive privilege) is as important as grand jury investigations and therefore, there must be a national security basis for the privilege (thus she testifies).

- congress’ right is not as important as the president’s right to get confidential advice (thus she does not testify).

- congress should win in the abstract, but find some exception for this case (a Supreme Court trick when they want a political decision, but don’t want to set bad precedent – a gambit goes back at least as far as Marbury v. Madison [1803]).

I am not a big fan of executive privilege and believe the Nixon case struck the right balance, which should be applied here to Congress' right, no matter how wacky and wasteful some of their investigations are.

Iraq

If you could picture my opinion of whether we should stay or go over the years it would probably look something like a roller coaster.

Its one thing to predict the presidential candidates, which is just fun, but what happens in Iraq is so serious that we shouldn’t be flippant about it. I have little respect for all opinions from people who are certain they know what will happen in Iraq if we do one thing or another.

The main arguments that I give some credit to are --

On the staying side

If we leave, we give Osama and Al Qaeda a huge propaganda victory which will be exploited by our opponents and our erstwhile allies

If we leave, no one will have faith in us to show we mean business for a long, long time

On the leaving side

If we leave, we will stop digging the 100 Billion dollars a year hole (for little or no benefit) which we could use to fight in Afghanistan and against Iran or her allies and try to defeat Islamic Militarism.

If we leave, the humanitarian crisis in Iraq will be no worse than it will be if we leave 5 years from now

Between those arguments I admit I cannot choose well, although I have been leaning towards leaving, even if we call it a strategic retreat, in order to marshal our economy, the lessons we learned, and our soldiers to fight Iran, Al Qaeda and other terrorists elsewhere. There may be some truth to all of them. Apparently I am not that great decisive leader America has been looking for.

On the other hand, I for once (believe me, this is rare) seem to be almost in the mainstream of American thought. According to a recent poll a nearly a majority (trending up the last few months) of Americans now believe that going into Iraq was the right thing. Although the poll also shows rather volatile changes in that position I have believed that since day one. Get in, get Sadaam and get out. The large majority of Americans believe we should either have never got in or left by now; however, add in go in and stay and the three positions are actually split rather evenly.

If you can get rid of a dictator who is threatening you or your allies, and he will, even if not then, have the capability to carry out the threat, it is usually a good idea not to wait (as with the Nazis). I would apply that to Iran and outright demand certain behavior, including what they say, from them before destroying their ability to govern from the air, even though we would likely take casualties ourselves in the way of terrorism and retaliation. Better now, before they have the bomb.

The poll also shows that the large majority of Americans, thus also a significant amount of Republicans, also favor leaving sooner than later. As I have said, I have been leaning in this direction as well.

America to Atheists – you suck, you godless bastards

Just for fun I compared this February’s Pew Research Group’s polls’ findings that 63 % of Americans would be less likely to vote for an atheist with its findings four years ago (7/24/03) that 41 % of Americans had reasons not to vote for an atheist. Although the questions were framed slightly differently, it is reasonable to believe they would elicit fairly similar answers (can’t be sure, of course, unless it is done in a controlled way at the same time). Nevertheless, I was not cheered by the large increase in fear of a leader who did not share their faith in God, which can never be proved, particularly when groups Americans really seem to fear, like Muslims, homosexuals and drug user, faired substantially better.

Because I love it so much, I need to repeat a paragraph from Sam Harris’ The End of Faith (p. 39 of the paperback edition for those of you who are going to throw down Harry Potter and race out to get it). I don’t agree with all of the points in his book, but this was a home run:

“[W]e live in a country in which a person cannot get elected president if he openly doubts the existence of heaven and hell. This is truly remarkable, given that there is no other body of “knowledge” that we require our political leaders to master. Even a hairstylist must pass a licensing exam before plying his trade in the United States, and yet those given the power to make war and national policy – those whose decisions will inevitably affect human life for generations – are not expected to know anything in particular before setting to work. They do not have to be political scientists, economists, or even lawyers; they need not have studied international relations, military history, resource management, civil engineering, or any other field of knowledge that might be brought to bear in the governance of a modern superpower; they need only be expert fund-raisers, comport themselves well on television, and be indulgent of certain myths. In our next presidential election, an actor who reads his Bible would almost certainly defeat a rocket scientist who does not. Could there be any clearer indication that we are allowing unreason and otherworldliness to govern our affairs.”

Like I said, just for fun.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Pottersville

I am usually so busy bashing the Harry Potter series for not being The Lord of the Rings that I sometimes forget to say that I have grown to enjoy the series, although I like the later books much better than the first few, and have not read them all.

Nevertheless, with the arrival today of The Deathly Hallows at my doorstep with the notation on it "Do Not Deliver Until July 21, 2007," I suddenly remembered I neglected to make my series ending predictions, which are fourfold -

1. Ron will die. If he doesn't it will be Hermione. Harry is least likely to die of all of them. Rowling may stake us out, by having it appear that one of the others will die or has died, but Ron will sacrifice himself for one or more of the others.
2. Dumbledore lives. He was never dead to begin with. All part of the plan with his co-conspirator and all around good guy --
3. Severus Snape, a double agent, and, in his secret identity, a big Harry fan, pledged to help him since his birth (my most likely guess).
4. Sadly, the loyal but slightly slow Hagrid will fall as well.

Political update coming this week. And now, let's see what happens with Harry --

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Will the real Tom Bombadil please stand up

So who the hell was Tom Bombadil and why should we care?

Recently, I was working on learning some arcane subject when I received some criticism from my insignificant other – “What are you going to do with that? It’s not good for anything”.

Sigh. Sadly, I am sure that is the way most people feel. Learning something unconnected with financial gain is often looked down upon. Unless, I guess, you are independently wealthy, and then, as Tevye taught us: “When you’re rich, they think you really know”.

So, with my scolding firmly ringing in my ears (well, she keeps repeating it) I started this week to think about who the hell was Tom Bombadil really, and I don’t care that I will never make a penny out of it. As you will see, Tom would approve of the effort.

The presumption here is that the reader has been through the Lord of the Rings (not the movie, as TB was left out) at least once and remembers fondly the sprite like spell master, Tom Bombadil, singing, dancing and rescuing hobbits. If not, stop here and come back next week.

Here’s why I love LOTR (I’m not typing “The Lord of the Rings” over and over) which is, in my mythologically ridden mind, the greatest novel of the century, perhaps of all time. By the way, Google it -- that is not just my opinion; it is widely shared, unless you are counting snooty critics who can’t get past the fact that there are elves and swords and monsters in the book, and that’s all they need to know to poo poo it.

1. It’s a an almost perfect epic story with great action, dialogue, description, plot, blah, blah, blah, and thank the Maia, no real intrusive love story, unless you count Sam and Frodo, and I don’t. Aragorn’s love interest never got in the way of the story, as Arwen and he barely ever saw each other until the end, and then Tolkien was just tidying up the yard.

2. It may also be the most linguistically interesting novel ever written. No surprise as Tolkien was a professor at Oxford

who specialized in ancient English and Germanic languages. To you, it may mean nothing that Gandalf means “Magic Elf,” that Eowyn means “love(r) of horses,” or the Oin, Gloin, Ori, Dori, etc. (and even Gandalf) can be found in the Poetic Edda, one of the two prime sources for knowledge on Norse mythology. But it apparently means a lot to many other people as more books and essays on LOTR are being churned out every year. We will see if in ten or fifteen years anyone is doing the same for Harry Potter. I enjoy Harry, but it is not in the same league.

3. It is an immersion in living breathing myth for anyone who loves the ancient Scandinavian and Germanic culture from which Tolkien borrowed many of his themes including, elves, trolls, dwarves, orcs, giants, floppy hatted wizards, magic rings, broken swords, talking birds, battle axes, beserkers runes, and so on.

4. It is a font of religious allegory (and I really don't care that Tolkien disliked allegory -- he wrote it). Gandalf we know was an Angel when he returned (so says Tolkien). Sauron is virtually indistinguishable from his master, Melkor, who was clearly meant to represent Lucifer.

The Silmarillion begins with a creation myth and expands into the acts of the pantheon and their creations – it is Tolkien’s own Bible. I have read a criticism by fantasy critic and author, Lin Carter in his Behind The Lord of the Rings that there should have been some religion in the book. Carter missed the boat on this (in an otherwise excellent introduction to classic fantasy) because the story and characters are the mythology and the religion once they go into the West and Middle Earth is left to us cloddish men.

5. It is a great morality tale about compassion, devotion, determination and making the best of a bad deal. My favorite line in LOTR shall always be Gandalf’s reply to Frodo’s “I wish it need not have happened in my time” with this bit of wisdom –

“‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’”

6. It is also about the disappearance of a less mechanistic way of life, particularly in England, which Tolkien loved, and the eventual triumph of technology over spirituality.

But we are not really talking about how great LOTR is here, we are talking about one specific creation – Tom Bombadil. There has been much debate about who or what he is, despite the fact that Tolkien has said that he was placed in the tale because he had already invented him as a character, and put him in as an intentional mystery. He also said that he knew Tom was someone he felt was an important addition for him, if not the story line, although he could not really specifically say why. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try and figure it out, or sort out the master’s mind. We can even disagree with him.

For those of you who don’t remember, the four traveling hobbits met Tom while on their way to Elrond’s house while they were stumbling around in the Old Forest and were swallowed up by a particularly nasty tree. Tom freed them with some quaint magical words, and let them stay at his home for a bit. He alone was not affected by the ring when holding it, and even made it briefly disappear, to the hobbits’ astonishment. He was married to Goldberry, an attractive peaches and cream type lady, obviously not as powerful as Tom, but mysteriously magical herself, in a vegetative sort of way.

When asked who Tom was, Goldberry merely responded “He is”. He seems all powerful on his own turf and it is suggested at one point by a member of the council at Elrond’s house, that the ring be kept with him. Not a good idea, it was pointed out. For one thing, he would forget about it, and would lose the Ring, which had a mind of its own. For another, even Tom would not be able to withstand Sauron and his helpmates if they succeeded. He would merely out last them all.

So, who was Tom? Your own answer is as good as mine, but these are my own thoughts after reading LOTR a bazillion plus times and a lot of literature on Mr. B. The general rule most authors on this take is that the answer must be internal to the story. I mostly follow that here, although I see it as a very gray line. So, Saying that Tom represents the author (which I think is true to some extent) is foul play. So is.pointing out that TB was actually a children’s doll who J.R.R. made up stories about to tell his children long before LOTR. That is where he came from, not who he is in the story.

One of the usual suggestions is that Tom is a nature spirit as is Goldberry. This is at least partially true. It is suggested at the council at Elrond’s home that Tom’s power is limited to that which is within the earth. Although he has carved out his own little kingdom with invisible boundaries, we know he has visited outside it (including to that irrascible hobbit, Farmer Maggot) when he wants. It is also explained that he has withdrawn into his land and set the boundaries.

Some reject the nature spirit theory, but believe he might be an actual god, which is certainly a higher power. There is some sense to this as he seems, on his own terms, more powerful than any other being in Middle Earth other than Sauron, moreso than even Elrond, Gandalf, Galadriel and Saruman, as none of them can control the Ring.

The Valar, are the gods of middle earth, and sometimes visited the earth and spent time hobnobbing with its folk or moving through them invisible, as did their helpers, the Maia, which is the lower order Gandalf and Saruman belong to when in spirit form. Arguably, Tom is a Valar who set up shop there.

Some wish to claim that Tom is none other than Iluvatar, or God, mostly because Goldberry’s “He is” is all too reminiscent of Jehovah’s “I am that I am”. Tolkien himself says this is stretching that line too far, and that Goldberry was really making a point about names. After all, no one argues that Popeye is God, and he liked to say “I yam what I yam and that’s all I yam”.

We are also told that Tom was there “before the river and the trees” not to mention “the first raindrop and the first acorn". Indeed, we also learn that he was there even before Melkor, the first Valar to come to Middle Earth.

Even if Tom is not the God, he may be a god. Tolkien was as well versed in Norse and Old English mythology as any man might be. His stories were immersed in it, could not exist without it, from the names of many of the characters and places (even "Middle Earth" and "Mirkwood") to the form and substance of the epic and even little bits of Beowulf, another Tolkien specialty.

Chief of the Norse gods was Odin. Gandalf certainly reflects quite a few elements of the Odin mythology. Tolkien himself links Odin by name to a specific Valar, Manwe, to whom Gandalf was attached. If this topic interests you, as I want to stay with Tom here, look at Matthew Graham’s Influences of the Norse Gods on Tolkien’s Mythology at http://rikku.as.arizona.edu/~mgraham/personal/odin.html).

Like Gandalf, Tom Bombadil reflects some characteristics of Odin. Those of you who have read my previous post “A Day of Thunder and Lightning” may think I am a little obsessed with the topic of matching literary characters to Norse gods, as I do there with Santa and Thor. But it shouldn’t really be a surprise that our cultural past shows its face in our present and manifestations of the Norse religion and culture are still felt today in many ways. Moreover, this was Tolkien's forte.

There is some evidence linking Tom and Odin, although admittedly thin.

Odin was the most magical of gods. In fact, he invented magic in some sense and magical runes too. He was also quite the spell caster much in the same manner that Tom does it. More interesting, in a pre-LOTR story about Tom Bombadil, Tolkien actually brings up Odin. Curious, isn’t it? Although this in itself is not conclusive, it means that at least at some point early on, when Tolkien thought about Tom, he also thinking about Odin, and no other deity. Plus, anytime I read about a magical godlike character with a big floppy hat (a la Gandalf) I think Odin.

Other interesting arguments are made in the literature on the subject. Tom’s singing can control nature, and some comparison is made to Iluvatar and the Valar singing the universe into existence in The Silmarillion. It is also pointed out that Tom was on earth when it was still dark, before Sauron’s master, Melkor or Morgoth (who is essentially Lucifer) came. This indicates that he is either one of the Valar, that is, a God, or he is the personification of earth itself.

Gene Harlowe's "Who was Tom Bombadil (http://www.cas.unt.edu/~hargrove/bombadil.
html, probably the most cited and best essay on the subject) makes a strong comparison of Goldberry and Tom with Yavanna and Aule, two married Valar. It hinges more on qualities of Goldberry being similar to that of Yavanna, than on Tom’s similarity to Aule. Although persuasive, it is ruined for me by a problem Harlowe swipes away with mere words – we are told in LOTR by Tom himself that Goldberry is the river’s daughter. That would make one, at best, a nymph, or very minor deity. If Goldberry is not Yavanna, then TB is not Aule.

Bombadil’s own limitations seem to show that he might not be a god or one of the Valar. The Valar still existed at the end of the third age/beginning of the fourth age when the story ends. Although they could suffer terribly from other major powers like Sauron, it was always by treachery or by hurting other beings. Bombadil himself we know would eventually be defeated if all else fell to Sauron, although he would “be last as he was first”.

Being first sounds godlike, and might explain his ability to resist the ring. However, being first also is a problem for this theory, as he saw Melkor come to Middle Earth. Melkor, we know from the Silmarillion, preceded any of the other Valar there.

In fact, even though Tom was first, he was in Middle Earth first. There is no indication he preceded the Earth in existence, as did the Valar or even Iluvatar or God.

At the same time, we also know that Tom meets the criteria of no other creature in Middle Earth, even the “nameless things” or mysterious characters from pre-LOTR days (e.g., The Rider or The Hunter).

Although a number of writers have suggested that TB is a Maia, like Gandalf, Saruman and the other Istari, Sauron, the Balrogs and the Eagles, I dismiss that as well. The wizards were cloaked in earthly bodies as men by special consent of Iluvatar. Without knowing that to be the case with Tom, it is too far a stretch to consider it. Moreover, Iluvatar had a special purpose with the Istari (wizards) who were returned in the end to the West (which I believe is the spirit world). Any other Maia who are here, Sauron and the Balrog, are not in human form and, excepting the Eagles, are evil.

Yet, to check my own thought, Blake Bollinger points out in his essay, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil (http://www.geocities.com/thebolingers/index.html) that “In an earlier draft of the Council meeting at Rivendell, published in Christopher Tolkien's History of The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf says of Bombadil: ‘He belongs to a much older generation, and my ways are not his. (Treason of Isengard, 158)”.

This would seem to indicate that at one point Tolkien allowed Gandalf to identify Tom as a Maia or possibly even a Valar, albeit of an older generation (although, he did then take that out of the story). This makes some sense because, although we usually take our ancient mythology from a fixed time and place (e.g., the Greek gods from Homer and Hesiod (probably around 700 B.C.), the Norse gods from Snorri Sturluson (about 1200 A.D.), the truth is that the gods were always evolving and changing such that some we know as demons were gods themselves at another time or place.

For example, Thor, not Odin, was the chief Norse god in Germany, at least for a long time. The Titans were likely an earlier group of Greek gods who were destroyed by Zeus, as were many of the evil villains destroyed by Greek heroes such as Theseus. Even the idols worshipped by the people in the Bible were local gods at one time. Thus, for Tom to have been from an earlier generation, completely cut off from the hierarchy and establishment of the Valar and Maia at this point, would be perfectly consistent with Tolkien’s understanding of mythology.

Indeed, as we now know from the seemingly endless but revealing series of books by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, the mythology of Middle Earth evolved as Tolkien wrote (my favorite bit of trivia from these books is that Aragorn was originally a hobbit. Yikes!)

Being a divinity from an older generation would make it understandable how Tom could have such power yet be so removed and outside the story in other senses.

Thus, we know the following:

Tom is like no other being in Middle Earth. He is vastly powerful within his own domain and has a command of magic. The One Ring has no power over him as he desires nothing. He is probably a spirit and not a living being (as Gandalf and Saruman, both Maia, are human while in Middle Earth), as Treebeard is the oldest living being. Tom’s powers are connected in some way with the Earth. He is married to Goldberry who has some spiritual connection with growing things. He is not all powerful, but strong enough to be defeated last if Sauron was successful and the world is snuffed out. But he is not God or Iluvatar.

I give you two more bits of information which have colored my thinking, both found in letters from Tolkien (can I take a side note here and say how sad Tolkien would be to live in the world of email).

One letter was written in 1937 before LOTR but after Tolkien had published his first stories on Tom. TB was pretty much fully developed and concerned characters that also made it into the epic (including Goldberry, the barrow wights and Old Man Willow). Tolkien said there that Tom represented 'the spirit of the Oxford and Berkshire countryside'.

Much later he wrote that Tom represented: "Botany and Zoology and Poetry as opposed to Cattle-breeding and Agriculture and practicality." I'm guessing that the professor of humanities did not realize that botany and zoology has practical applications as well, but the point is made.

I conclude that Tom is a spirit, not living in the biological sense, but appearing so to living beings. He is not the Earth itself, but deeply entwined with it, perhaps, within his borders, inseparably so, coming into existence with Middle Earth itself. He sets his own boundaries, but does not test the powers of others outside it. He represents all of the things that Tolkien said in his letters. We can easily interpret this as meaning that Tom represents Nature the way that Saruman represented gears and metal things.

One of the great themes of LOTR is the losing battle of spirituality and natural life, such as enjoyed in the Shire, to technology and the seeking after knowledge in order to gain power instead of for the joy of it. Tom no more wished to extend his domain than he wished to keep The Ring. Such things had no meaning to him. Tolkien wrote of Tom:

“[I]f you have, as it were taken 'a vow of poverty', renounced control, and take delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless."

He also wrote:

"He is master in a peculiar way: he has no fear, and no desire of possession or domination at all. He merely knows and understands about such things as concern him in his natural little realm. [He is] the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature... and entirely unconcerned with 'doing' anything with the knowledge..."

Tom will be last. As all of the magical and spiritual beings do, he has diminished. He did not go into the West with Gandalf and Frodo and Elrond and all the other magical or spiritual beings living at the very end of the mythological age because unlike them, his spirit is indistinguishably tied with Middle Earth and life upon it. He may exist independent of the rest of Iluvatar’s creation. Tom will exist until the last bit of nature is conquered by Sauron, who represents the damping out of natural life, when man can no longer exist without mechanical aids, and darkness subsumes light.

Then Tom will be last as he was first.

Don’t feel bad about taking up time in your busy schedule to read this stuff. Steuard Jensen’s What is Tom Bombadil (http://tolkien.slimy.com/essays/Bombadil.html) is also informative as was the Encyclopedia of Arda article http://www.glyphweb.com/arda/default.asp?url=http://www.glyphweb.com/arda/t/tombombadil.html. Eugene Hargrove cites numerous articles and books at the end of his essay, I believe all of which, except the books, can be found on the web. I am glad to say I have “wasted my time” reading all of them at least once.

I may just read them all again. Tom Bombadil would approve.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Gilgamesh

Remarkably, one of the founding records of civilization is unknown to most people today, although you could pick up a copy of it in any book store or find a translation on the web. The story of Gilgamesh is the oldest known epic poem in the world, created in some form probably two thousand years before Homer conceived of the Iliad and The Odyssey (presuming there was a Homer, but that’s for another day in or around the first half of the third millenium b.c.

The epic was written in ancient Sumeria, the first real civilization of which we have substantial knowledge. It is not only the first epic poem we know of, but the first adventure story, the first theological tale, the first buddy story and the first morality play. It contains the first dramatic death scene, the first seduction and even a version of a story much later told in the Bible which each and every one of you know.

Written in cuneiform on tablets by making etching knife marks in soft clay, the tale
is relatively modern in its narrative, and the reader can easily follow the story (the names are tough, but I don’t use many) which I will relate here in abbreviated form. Like many long existing tales, it underwent numerous changes over time. Because of its near completeness, a version of the story written in a language known as Akkadian made nearly 2000 years after the first compilations, is regularly tapped in modern times as “the standard version,” and so will be used here.

The hero, Gilgamesh, is a young but powerful king, mostly divine but also part human. He is purely mortal though and a tyrant.

In order to combat him, the people pray to their great sky god, Anu, for some relief and he answers their call by creating a half man/half animal named Enkidu, who possesses the strength of many wild beasts.

Despite his prowess, he is easily tamed. A local trapper who learned about Enkidu from his son advises his son to tempt him with a temple harlot. He follows through, and Enkidu immediately has sex with the girl, named Shamat, which drains him, Samson-like, of much, but not all, of his great strength.

Not surprisingly, he is disturbed by his loss of vigor and the fear he now causes in the animal kingdom. Shamat then takes him to Uruk (the city) to introduce him to Gilgamesh.

In the meantime, Gilgamesh is having troubling dreams in which he is forced by his mother to compete with a meteorite and an axe (which he “embraces as he would his wife” -- hmmm). He learns that this means he will meet a man who will be a competitor but then help him accomplish great things.

Soon, Gilgamesh is at a wedding in the city. Rather than bring a gift, he claims his right of primacy, i.e., he may have sex with the bride before the husband (a right kings and rulers of many civilizations have claimed). Even at this early time in civilization, this caused great unrest with the groom. Enkidu, who has been somewhat civilized by some shepherds, faces off against Gilgamesh to prevent his taking the bride.

They fight. Gilgamesh has almost met his match, but the hero must prevail, then as now, and Gilgamesh is the hero. Defeated, Enkidu pledges his undying support to him.

They become inseparable friends. One day Gilgamesh decides that they should go down to a foreign land and cut down a cedar forest patrolled by a great giant named Humbaba. Enkidu actually knows Humbaba from his wild days and thinks it is a bad idea. But he cannot convince Gilgamesh.

He should have had more confidence in his buddy, for Gilgamesh gets the protection of some powerful gods. One of the gods even commands Enkidu to take the lead in battling Humbaba. Not liking that idea at all, he fails for a second time to dissuade his friend.

Gilgamesh has some disturbing dreams on the way to the forest, but Enkidu, faithful despite his fears, interprets each one positively in favor of Gilgamesh. Doesn’t help much. When Gilgamesh gets to the cedar forest he starts shaking life a leaf. A god he has been praying to, Shamash, tells him that Humbaba is only wearing one of his seven coats of armor, which reassures him.

Now it is Enkidu’s turn to try to leave. Gilgamesh intercepts him, and they come to blows. They fight so hard that they alert Humbaba to their presence. He challenges them, and Gilgamesh convinces Enkidu to fight with him.

In a second version in the same story (this happens all the time in ancient literature, notably in the Bible) the two heroes enter the forest and actually begin to cut down the cedar trees. Humbaba approaches and challenges them. Endkidu tells Humbaba that the two of them together are stronger than he is, but Humbaba taunts Enkidu for being a nobody while Gilgamesh was a king. Humbaba grimaces hideously and Gilgamesh tries to hide. Enkidu talks him into fighting. Obviously, the writer(s) of the first version favored Gilgamesh and the second version, Enkidu.

However it happens, the three battle. Shamash, the friendly god, enters on the two mortals’ side and they triumph (a god helping warriors fight is also very typical of ancient literature, very notably in Homer). Defeated, Humbaba is on his knees. He begs Gilgamesh, who has his sword at his throat, not to kill him. Enkidu, advises his friend to do it while he can and gain everlasting fame. Just before Gilgamesh’s sword chops off Humbaba’s head, the giant curses Enkidu to die before Gilgamesh, without finding any peace in the world.

The two giant killers now cut down the trees, using the tallest to make a gate for Uruk and others to build a raft they use to drift down the Euphrates River to home. Their first adventure is over.

Gilgamesh gains great fame just as Enkidu predicted. He gets some new kingly duds and soon even the great goddess Ishtar falls in love with him. When she tries to seduce him, however, he recounts all of her past lovers, and how she treated them, then turns her down flat. Shamed, she does what any self respecting goddess would do and asks her father, Anu, the sky god, to let her borrow the bull of heaven to kill Gilgamesh. And just in case he doesn’t want to give him to her, she threatens to let down the gates of hell so that the dead can swarm over the earth, and, prefiguring The Night of the Living Dead, eat everyone. Even then, fathers were giving in to Daddy’s little girl, and she gets to use the ferocious beast.

This is one tough bull. With every breath he takes, he punches giant holes into the ground causing people to fall to their death. Fortunately for human kind, the first dynamic duo is tougher than any supernatural bull and team up to kill him. Ishtar is even angrier now, particularly as Enkidu, maybe feeling a little too good about himself, tells her that she is next to be dealt with and throws a piece of bull’s thigh he ripped off right in her face. The Greeks knew it was not wise to mock the gods, but perhaps ancient Sumerians were just learning.

Here’s where things turn bad. Enkidu has a few ominous dreams and sickens. He learns that the gods are punishing the two of them for killing Humbaba and the bull, by killing Enkidu! He curses the harlot who seduced him and just about everyone and everything (including the gates of Uruk) he has come in contact with except Gilgamesh. Shamash (the god) reminds him that even if he only lived a little while, at least he got to enjoy civilization . Sounds like someone was trying to sneak in a moral. Of course, now Enkidu blesses the harlot and everyone else. Clearly, he was quite easy to get around.

Near the end Enkidu has a dream of a demon dragging him down to hell, where we get our first look at. .

. . . the House of Darkness,
the dwelling of Irkalla,
to the house where those who enter do not come out,
along the road of no return,
to the house where those who dwell, do without light,
where dirt is their drink, their food is of clay,
where, like a bird, they wear garments of feathers,
and light cannot be seen, they dwell in the dark,
and upon the door and bolt, there lies dust.
On entering the House of Dust,
everywhere I looked there were royal crowns gathered in heaps,
everywhere I listened, it was the bearers of crowns,
who, in the past, had ruled the land,
but who now served Anu and Enlil . . . .

(translation by Maureen Gallery Kovacs)

An interesting vision where dullness and humiliation seem paramount to torment. Given a choice, I would rather have to wear bird feathers in he dark, eat clay, drink dirt and serve the gods than burn for eternity in the more modern version of hell.

Saying good bye to his great friend, Enkidu suffers twelve days before dying.

Gilgamesh, apparently not totally self centered, is in turmoil, orders the universe to mourn with him (prefiguring a well known myth from Norse mythology) and builds Enkidu a monument. Not shaving or bathing in his sorrow, he becomes a sorry spectacle, when it suddenly dawns on him that he is going to die someday too. Craving immortality, he determines to visit Utnapishtim, a former king of the world who was preserved by a god, along with his wife, when the gods caused a great and homicidal flood.

Trouble is, Utnapishtim lives quite a distance away (in a place actually called “Far Away” which is somewhat reminiscent of J.M. Barrie’s Neverland – it is perhaps not coincidental that Gilgamesh was first translated in English while Barrie was a young man) where all the rivers of the world enter. Ignoring more ominous dreams, Gilgamesh sets out for it. At Mount Mashu, where the sun sets and rises (the end of the known world) Gilgamesh encounters two giant scorpions who politely try to warn him off. He insists and they let him pass. He crosses the land of night, followed by the sun, for twelve leagues before coming to daylight.

If you have noticed the repeated use of the number twelve here, consider that we have a 12 hour clock and 24 hour day, courtesy of the Sumerian system, which used 60 as a base instead of ten, with 12 being one factor and 24 another.

As the sun catches up to him, he comes to a garden which might seem better suited to Oz or Disney World. It glitters with gems, many growing from the trees. Soon he comes to a tavern (if it is so hard to get to this place, who is drinking at the tavern?). The barmaid at first locks him out, as he is looking pretty wretched. She also tries to warn him off, but eventually sends him to the ferryman, Urshanabi, who is Utnapishtim’s servant.

His bad temper taking over, Gilgamesh approaches Urshanabi in a rage and kills two stone giants who are with him. When Gilgamesh tells him what he wants, Urshanabi replies to him that the only way to find him Utnapishtim is to use the giants to cross the river of death. Nevertheless, Urshanabi has Gilgamesh make some punting polls and ferries him over the river of death anyway (prefiguring Charon, the ferryman of the River Styx in Greek mythology). Guess they did not need the giants after all.

After crossing, Gilgamesh meets an old man and tells him why he is there. The old fellow explains to him that man is mortal and cannot change that state. Gilgamesh realizes he has met Utnapishtim and asks him how he became immortal, leading to the telling of the second oldest (more on this later) known version of the flood.

As explained in Gilgamesh, the flood happened when the gods had met long before on the Euphrates River and agreed to wipe out the human race. Nothing new there, right. An oath was sworn to keep this secret from the humans. One of the gods who helped creates humans, Ea, went to Utnapishtim’s house and to avoid breaking an oath technically talked to the walls. The “walls” were told to build a great boat into which all living things of the earth should be brought. Utnapishtim does as directed (and also, being no dummy, takes gold and silver with him too). After 7 days and nights, he looks out and sees that the world is covered with water and all the people were turned to stone. He cries.

Finally the boat comes to rest on a mountain, just under the surface. Utnapishtim lets out a dove, a swallow and then a raven, the last of which does not return. Realizing the waters have finally receded, he sends off the animals, sacrificing a sheep to the gods.

The gods gather around the mountain after smelling the sacrifice. One of them, Enlil is angry that a human has survived and is furious with Ea. Ea just tells him to relax and next thing you know, Enlil makes Utnapishtim immortal.

Now, Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh his shot. He tells him that if he can sit by the shore of the river for six days and nights without sleeping, he will become immortal. Piece of cake, says our hero. He goes and sits down and instantly falls asleep. When he wakes up, he immediately denies snoozing. But Utnapishtim, knowing that all men lie, has had his wife leave a loaf of baked bread each day beside Gilgamesh. Seeing the various states of decay of the loaves, Gilgamesh cannot maintain his argument.

Instead, he starts moaning and wailing about his mortality again, and now Utnapishtim’s wife gets in the act (bringing to mind a little Miracle Max and his wife from The Princess Bride). She convinces her husband to give Gilgamesh one more chance. There is a plant at the bottom of the ocean surrounding Far Away. Gilgamesh succeeds in getting the plant by tying rocks to his ankles so he can walk underwater.

Nevertheless, he is afraid to use it and decides to test it on an old man back at home. After Urshanabi, now exiled by Utnapishtim, takes Gilgamesh back across the river of death, they hike for a while before stopping to sleep. A snake (shades of Adam and Eve) crawls up and swallows the plant. This is the reason, according to the myth, that snakes shed their skin (seeming to early mankind magical or a sign of immortality).

Whining like a big baby again, Gilgamesh can only go home, bringing the ferryman with him to admire his great city with its tall gates, not to mention Gilgamesh’s exploits carved into the rock.

Ancient writers being what they were, another tale creeps in at the end (these are all written on separate tablets) wherein Enkidu is still alive. Gilgamesh asks him to go to hell and retrieve the his game or toy that he has dropped into it. He gives him a list of things not to do in order to get out again, but, of course, Enkidu, does all of them (prefiguring Persephone from Greek mythology) and is kept in hell. As he often does, Gilgamesh asks the god for help and one of them creates a crack in the earth from which Enkidu emerges. Gilgamesh inquires about hell and Enkidu is happy to comply. Don’t try and make sense of it. Just enjoy it.

This is great story most relevant to us for its priority in ancient mythology. The list of firsts from Gilgamesh goes on and on. Outside of those stated at the top of the post, it is the first quest for immortality, the first use of a snake as a foil, the first use of trickery, the first interaction with deities, the first ferryman over a river of death, the first civilization of a wild man (a la Tarzan), the first uses of dreams as foretelling the future, the first battle with a giant, the first battle with a monstrous animal, the first wrath of a scorned woman or goddess, and so many more.

That being said, it is not the first flood story. That part did not appear in Gilgamesh tales until later versions dating from about 1300 to 1000 b.c. (still long preceding the Bible). But much of the flood myth it is copied word for word from an epic several hundred years earlier (but still well after the first Gilgamesh legends) known as Atra-hasis, and which one or more writers simply plucked out to include in Gilgamesh’s tale the same way modern science fiction tv shows pirate Star Trek for plots.

Some modern historians surmise that a King Gilgamesh may in fact have actually lived around 2700 to 2500 b.c. The desire to put flesh on legendary characters seems to be a trend in the classics field and I can’t have a lot of faith in it without some solid proof. The evidence at this time is merely a couple of artifacts which have been associated with two kings whose names were also found in the Gilgamesh epic. But these may have simply been popular names for kings, or, names chosen for the epic just because they were also those of actual kings. Likely, we will never know for sure, unless Gilgamesh’s name turns up in some pile of unread clay tablets laying somewhere deep beneath modern Iraq, in a context unconnected with the legends. Even then, it may just be a name that some writer liked and appropriated, just as one appropriated the flood myth much later.

At some point some author(s) started to put the Gilgamesh stories together in collections, or in epic form, probably in the last century or so of the millennia (2150-2000 b.c). Even the version we have looked at here is incomplete in sections, and, as you can see, self-contradictory. That shouldn’t concern anyone as both the Old and New Testaments are based upon at least two different and often inconsistent sources or proto-Bibles.

It is conceivable that we aren’t taught about Gilgamesh when we are young because some people would be upset at the presentation of a “pagan” variant of a Bible story. Yet, there are a number of published translations and histories of Gilgamesh out there today, a music group with a CD by the same name, a popular anime series called Gilgamesh but totally unrelated to the legend, a few children’s version of the story, none of the above about which I can tell you the first thing. There is even a recent novel (The Great American Novel, for that matter) by a famous author whose lead character is . . . Gil Gamesh.

Why there aren’t any number of movies about the Gilgamesh legend I don’t know either, as it seems a natural for film. The last one being worked on a few years ago included Peter O’toole, but never saw daylight.

But maybe I protest too much, as Evan Almighty, supposedly a comic take on Noah, is actually, when you think about it, based on Gilgamesh too.

If only the world knew it.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

How far right does the new Supreme Court lean?

Stop the presses. I have an announcement. The sudden swing to the right by the Supreme Court announced in Sunday’s New York Times is neither news, nor as dramatic as claimed. The outcry against this supposed conservative steam roller is mostly about politics, with one exception.

Linda Greenhouse, the Times’ long time SCOTUS watcher started her long article like this:

“It was the Supreme Court that conservatives had long yearned for and that liberals feared.

By the time the Roberts court ended its first full term on Thursday, the picture was clear. This was a more conservative court, sometimes muscularly so, sometimes more tentatively, its majority sometimes differing on methodology but agreeing on the outcome in cases big and small.

As a result, the court upheld a federal anti-abortion law, cut back on the free-speech rights of public school students, strictly enforced procedural requirements for bringing and appealing cases, and limited school districts’ ability to use racially conscious measures to achieve or preserve integration”.


The proverbial man from Mars, reading Greenhouse’s article while he struggles to learn American history, may get a sense that civil liberties are being ferociously rolled back by the court, and much worse is yet to come.

There are civil rights concerns with this administration, most publicly the formerly secret wiretapping program (which they finally backed off on – something they never do when they think they are right), the greater use of National Security Letters and habeas corpus questions (a method by which prisoners can get to court when otherwise denied the liberty to do so). Those concerns, though, are properly focused on the president and also congress, which are never content with limits on their own power over us and are presently consumed by the rising temperature of their own intra-governmental struggle.

The court as it stands now is tilted right, but just not so much to justify alarm bells. This should surprise no one. Roberts’ and Alito’s appointments made the right hand turn a certainty. And despite the contempt with which some on the right hold Anthony Kennedy, he is basically a conservative who has his limits as to blindly following dogma.

It was not a great prediction to say, when O’Connor retired, that Kennedy would step into the role of the swing vote. It was obvious. Actually, he was already there on many issues, even occasionally to O’Conner’s left. In two very visible types of cases, he was not – abortion and affirmative action. Particularly because of abortion cases, and especially because she is a woman, O’Connor got more recognition for being in the middle than Kennedy, despite the fact that they both are usually solidly conservative in their opinions with certain dramatic exceptions.

Kennedy has certainly lived up to this prediction though, being a deciding vote in every single one of the 5/4 cases decided this term. This means, to a large degree, this is not the Roberts Court, but the Kennedy Court, and may be for some time to come.

We can’t dissect every case here – so instead, we will look at some of the cases that have excited so much controversy, particularly those Greenhouse commented on in her article, and take a look at just how far the court has swerved right.
Let us start out with the one area where the court clearly is more right than left – criminal law, particularly the death penalty. As Greenhouse points out, the prosecution was victorious in 14 of 18 criminal cases that were not death penalty cases out of Texas.

The surprising thing is not that the right dominates this issue, because, in fact, they have been doing so ever since the conservative Clarence Thomas replaced the very liberal Thurgood Marshall in 1991. It is that in four Texas cases, the prosecution lost. But Kennedy is not, as the four more liberal judges are, thoroughly against the death penalty. In fact, he seems like the only one on the court who has a reasonably open mind, sticking with the conservative judges unless he really thinks they go too far.

Nor can it be ignored, that whether or not you believe that the court took a turn for the better or worse in the Warren years (’53-'69), the conservatives have come around on racial issues to nearly the liberal viewpoint, but are still mad as hornets about the criminal law revolution that the court brought about in that era. Yet, the cases that went furthest then in declaring new constitutional rights where none before existed, are now considered fairly safe.

In fact, the late Chief Justice Rehnquist, no liberal, wrote the decision in 2000 reconfirming the very suspect Miranda decision. The right wing of the court will forever be trying to whittle down Miranda rights, but until there are three other clones of Thomas and Scalia on the court, they will not throw them out completely. Even then, it they may not. Of the 14 criminal cases the right got to decide this term, none were earth shattering or changed the basic prevalent constitutional paradigms.

The ideological division on death cases, in particular, and criminal cases, in general, is important. Of the 24 5/4 cases decided this term, 18 (75%) were purely on the well known partisan division. But almost all of them were criminal cases. That means, if you think some terrible conservative revolution came out of the court, you would have to explain how one or more of the good guys voted with the evil ones on so many cases.

Scotusblog.com tabulates just how often each justice agrees with another. So we can know that on this year, where ideology is at recent record highs, the most liberal justice, Stevens, and the most conservative one, Thomas, still agreed on at least part of a case more than 1/3 of time. But those are the extremes. The next most liberal justice, Ginsberg and the next most conservative one, Scalia, agreed virtually half of the time (48%). That doesn’t sound too extreme.

There is no doubt that in many of the controversial cases, Scalia and Thomas wanted to push the court further than it went, but Roberts and Alito either are determined not to let the older attorneys’ dominate them, or they were true to their oaths before the Senate that they would take precedent into serious consideration. It was these two justices who were in agreement the most, nearly 90% of the time, and when they agreed with Kennedy, were almost always in the majority.

Thus, it is a little hard to understand Justice Breyer’s statement from the bench: “It is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much.” More substantial change occurred on a long weekend during the Warren years than happens now.

Few precedents have been overturned at all by the new court – three to be exact, out of the 68 (or 72 if you count summary opinions) decisions made, two in criminal law and one in anti-trust. Hardly startling. I am not necessarily stating that these cases are correctly decided (whatever that means anyway). But in what year will any person agree with everything or even nearly everything the court determines?

Let’s move from criminal law to some of the really controversial cases, a number of which were decided in the last few days, tracking those highlighted by Greenhouse as examples. Among those that got the most print and air time are two cases concerning whether schools are allowed to use race to determine where they go to school even where it is done to try and prevent a return to segregation. The court, led by Justice Roberts said “no”.

Here are the two basic positions. The majority (the right) which struck down the race based plans based its decision on a policy that the way to end racism is to stop using it whether it is for a supposedly good reason or not. The left based its dissent on the belief that there is a difference between using race to segregate and using race to integrate, and the court should allow the latter. Let us say, for argument’s sake, that the left is right on the case. Is a judicial view that says schools can’t use race to discriminate at all really what the left is complaining about on the right. Is saying that racism is unfair in any form really a bad thing? Yet many convince themselves that since an ideological majority decided it, then it must be.

The truth is, also, that even though Kennedy sided with a majority, he would not agree that race can never be a factor. So, although the school plans in these cases were deemed to have gone too far, a majority of the court, including Kennedy and the left, still accepts that some racial discrimination for “benign” purposes is allowable. This is still the law. Some right wing swing.

Greenhouse also refers to two business cases, Tellabs Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights Ltd. and Credit Suisse Securities v. Billing as changing the law, making it harder to sue. But guess who wrote the opinions – Ginsburg in one case and Breyer in the other. In fact, in one of them, the arch-demon of the left, Thomas, actually dissented (Stevens in the other). Everyone else on the court, right or left signed on. Some right wing swing.

Yet the court also made it easier to sue in a type of patent case too (KSR International Co. v. Teleflex Inc.) by showing that a patent should not have been granted as it was an "obvious" invention. Is lessening business property rights even a conservative principal at all? For one thing, this will almost certainly be better for consumers as paying royalties for "obvious" inventions will not be built into the cost.

In another case Greenhouse refers to (Philip Morris USA v. Williams), the court reversed an approximately 80 million dollar punitive damages award against a tobacco company. Think it was right wing judicial activists taking the case away from the jury? No. Breyer wrote the decision, joined by Souter from the left, Kennedy from the center and Roberts and Alito from the right. Making strange bedfellows, Scalia, Thomas, Ginsburg and Stevens dissented. Some right wing swing.

The right did control the criminal agenda, but in some cases all or almost all of the court joined them. In one nearly unanimous case the court made it harder for state court defendants to get federal court habeas corpus. In another nearly unanimous case, the court held that the police did not violate constitutional rights by ramming a speeding run away car from the rear, causing him to hit a pole and severely injure himself. Scalia actually made the video part of the opinion for readers to watch. Only Stevens dissented. He must have watched a different video than I and the court did.

All of the judges also agreed that a passenger in a car has the same right as a driver does to challenge the police’s right to stop and search their car, because they would not feel free to walk away. Frankly, this case, Brendlin v. California, is a step left (pro-criminal rights) and even Scalia and Thomas joined the majority, accepting that the bill of rights applies to the states, despite their theoretical beliefs that it does not.

In a highly discussed case, Gonzales v. Carhart, which Greenhouse termed an “anti-abortion decision,” the court decided to uphold a federal partial birth abortion law, which, in fact, does not even make any abortion illegal, just one particularly gruesome abortion procedure. Although the left was quaking after this case, virtually announcing the end of Roe v. Wade, they blew making an argument about Congress impeding on state rights which Scalia and Thomas probably would have gone for, as it is right up their alley. However, as it goes against liberal dogma (federal power) the attorneys chose allegiance to political philosophy over their clients and did not, as Thomas and Scalia noted, raise it at all.

Greenhouse pointed out that in a number of cases the court made it harder to sue. However, as noted above, the left joined in some of these rulings. However, one of them, Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, decided by the right wing majority, narrowed a taxpayer’s right to challenge government expenditures based on the separation clause of the first amendment in determining that the right applied only to congressional earmarks and not the president’s discretionary spending.

The important issue here is not whether the president violated the separation clause because the court did not get that far, but the bar at the courthouse door from filing this suit. Generally speaking, taxpayers have no right to sue to challenge laws that do not specifically hurt them, which makes sense, but first amendment speech and religion cases have been important exceptions. If they weren’t, no one could challenge them and the administration and congress would be unfettered to disregard the first amendment.

It is hard to understand how the president should not be limited by the first amendment, whereas congress is, just because congress has delegated the money to him. Worst decision of the term and it will come back to bite us all in some proverbial body part when some president goes further in religious spending.

Lastly, let’s look at the two speech cases. In Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, the court partially struck down part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law which included in its ban television commercials aired shortly before an election containing only issue advertising as opposed to advocating for a candidate. The court held that the ban could only apply to advertisements whether there was “no reasonable interpretation” but that it was “an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate”.

Like many on both sides of the aisle, I agree with Scalia and Thomas that much of the McCain-Feingold law violates the first amendment. Before you trash this case on a partisan basis, remember that we want to protect speech, particularly political and social speech. Everyone seems to agree that money corrupts politics, but do we really want to trample on free speech to get there. Isn’t that defeating the whole purpose of the act – better government? More important, should congress be allowed to do this? Answer: No. Nor can I buy the dissenters’ argument that allowing issue ads will lead to runaway deceptive advertising which sneak in support or disparagement of particular candidates. Stepping on everyone’s speech rights to protect against possible fraud is not a great idea, and, in fact, unconstitutional.

What is the brouhaha about Morse v. Frederick, better known as the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case. Remember, Greenhouse wrote “[The court . . . cut back on the free-speech rights of public school students . . .”. In fact, the court did not overturn the law at all. It applied the prevailing law from Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a Vietnam War era case which held that students passively expressing themselves (armbands) were protected by the 1st amendment, subject to whether the expression substantially interfered with the school’s mission or the rights of others. Here, the court determined that at a school assembly (out doors), during school time, the intentionally outrageous message which obviously advocates drug use (how the dissent disagrees I will never understand) crossed the lines. Actually, reading the dissent closely, it seems that Stevens barely disagrees at all.

Thomas, who concurred in the opinion, would hold that there are no 1st amendment rights for students. It is hard to believe he really means it, were he to be given enough hypothetical situations to consider. For example, should a student be allowed to be suspended because of an expression of disfavored political beliefs to another student at lunch? How about if the principal allows t-shirts favoring one political party or religious group over others? There has to be some first amendment protection in cases like these.

Nevertheless, Thomas makes strong points that these rights never existed in schools for most of our history and for good reason. Discipline is required (although there has to be limits to everything) for learning to take place. I strongly agree with those on the right that we need more discipline, not less, in school – excepting those times when passive non-disruptive speech or expression does not impede the school’s mission. Like so many constitutional issues, it is a balancing act, and the court performed well here. If you ever coached or taught or even raised a family, try succeeding if the kids run the show (too often the case, which is one of America’s big problems).

That’s enough cases for now to make the point that despite a mild turn right, which was to be expected, no revolution has occurred. If a number of avenues to the courts were closed, well, heavens to Betsy, we are now a slightly less litigious country.

We haven’t even mentioned the case charging the EPA with combating global warming, unless it has a good scientific reason why it should not, which seems the opposite of a Republican platform. Again - some right wing swing.

Greenhouse, a SCOTUS commentator powerful enough to have her own effect named after her (when right wingers think that a SCOTUS judge leaned left they call it the Greenhouse Effect, because they believe the judge is trying to get good press from her) should wield her pen more carefully. The bulk of her article was fair, but the beginning, which is all many people will read, leaves the wrong impression.

Will the court tilt further right? Maybe, maybe not. None of these judges are young. If something happened to one of them right now, particularly on the left, Bush would get a replacement choice, but with a Democratic senate to block it. It is hard to believe there will not be at least one replacement in the next few years. If a Republican wins the presidential election he will still likely face a Democratic senate and he will have to nominate a relatively moderate judge to pass their scrutiny. Only with a Republican president and senate will the court tilt further right. Even then, as we have learned with several justices in the past, you never know where their jurisprudence will take them.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The latest Libby mess

So many others have written or spoken on this topic in the last few hours that it would be near impossible to come up with anything unique, or to have much of a thought before anyone else. For that reason, I will be brief, have my say, and continue working on my Supreme Court review due later this week.

I would love to congratulate the president on having the courage to commute the sentence of Libby (it is not a pardon, although some are calling it that) instead of waiting until Christmas after the next presidential election. But it is clearly because the courts will not let Libby wait out the president’s term with appeals and were going to start his time in prison shortly.

After a month of Paris Hilton getting out of jail early (a happy ending – she was put back in; a sickening lawsuit by a judge over a pair of pants for $54 million (another happy ending – he lost); and, the end of the Duke rape case (obviously another happy ending with the prosecutor disbarred and facing criminal contempt charges), the public can now go back to believing with all their cynical hearts that all that matters is privilege and there is no justice. Hard to argue this night.

The pardon power, which includes the power to commute a sentence, is written into the constitution and is probably the president’s broadest, most unfettered power, and often questionably used. For example, Jimmy Carter pardoned, en masse, deserters during the Vietnam War. Clinton pardoned Mark Rich, in my book the worst thing that he ever did as president. Reagan pardoned George Steinbrenner who had violated election laws campaigning for Nixon. George Bush I pardoned 6 from the Irangate scandal, also in my book, the low point of his presidency.

There is no question of illegality here – not even the most liberal Liberal will claim that Bush can’t do this. This one is just bad for the justice system. Personally, I was embarrassed for the Republican pundits who had to state on tv after the Libby conviction that it was wrong and he should be pardoned, throwing away all those years of claiming the tough on crime crown. But this is not a purely Republican fault. Democrats are equally guilty of this type of nonsense. Doesn’t matter. At some point, you have to stop saying “well, the other side . . . “.

Here’s why this one bothers me:

Libby probably did violate or at least conspire to violate an important law even before the cover up which got him in trouble (see my 3/23/07 post). He will never be prosecuted for this, so there never can be a verdict of guilt or innocence.

Bush said he would find out who was responsible for the Valerie Plame leak and that they would be held accountable. Now we know. Not only was Libby responsible, but so was Cheney (who can’t be fired, only impeached). We know this from Libby's own grand jury testimony

Bush says he is commuting the sentence in part because he feels sorry for Scooter’s family. The many children whose parents are still in jail for far less will be so warmed by that sentiment.

Bush says that he is commuting the sentence in part because the sentence was too tough. The people serving mandatory sentences for unimportant crimes, or are three time losers (life imprisonment), those on Death Row based on minimal evidence, and so on, are laughing in their tears. Besides, all that needed to be done was to lessen the sentence instead of completely commuting it. Bush, who couldn’t find it in his heart to pardon those on Death Row while Texas’ governor, regardless of reasonable doubt, has lost the little credibility he had left. Back when running for office, he said the only question for him was guilt or innocence (which it has been shown he spent almost no time investigating). Obviously, there are other things that matter as his statement accompanying the pardon (not given live) accepts the jury’s verdict of guilt.

Having nothing to lost in terms of popularity, Bush simply stepped up and protected a friend and supporter.

I usually wish Congress would not waste time on witch hunts (e.g., enough with the Attorney General stuff). I don’t think they would be wasting their time on this. Revealing a CIA agent’s identify (I don’t even care if she were technically covert or not) for political purposes was a low point for this administration. Obviously, 9/11 changed nothing. Congress being Congress, of course, there is little chance of uncovering anything more.

The good news—whether as K Street’s newest lobbyist, an author peddling his memoirs, or a commentator on FoxNews, Libby has little to worry about. Need proof. Of the six pardoned by his father after Irangate, four of them have served in this president’s administration including Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, Deputy Secretary of State, John Poindexter, who briefly served under Bush II, and Charles Allen (who quite possibly deserved the pardon most), Chief Intelligence Agent in the Department of Homeland Security. Although Libby still has felony status, it probably will not matter much. Nor would it surprise me if Bush pardoned him fully on his way out the door. Although he still has a large fine to pay (quarter mill) that will not prove difficult, should he have to pay it at all.

Not because of this case, but because the pardon power is too easy to abuse (and has been too often) to be given to one person, and is so frequently just a political tool, rather than the act of grace it was meant to be, it should be (won’t though) be modified in the constitution to allow congress to meddle in it so that at least the president’s cannot pardon members of their own administration or major donors to their campaigns without some bipartisan approval.

Candidates for presidents should be pressed on this point. Will they agree not to pardon a supporter without at least going through the usual processes that are already in place (which Bush, who said that was his policy, ignored here). It is not much, but it is something.

About Me

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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 . . . .