Category Archives: War

Bombs Nationalize Patriots’ Day

The Boston Marathon, begun in 1897 with 18 contestants, is the world’s oldest annual marathon and likely the most prestigious.  These days about 500,000 people come to watch between 20,000 and 35,000 contestants each year.  The race starts at noon on the third Monday of April, which is Patriots’ Day.

Patriots’ Day is an obscure Massachusetts holiday.  No one else knows about it or cares  much (Maine celebrates it too as they used to be part of Massachusetts, and a few people in Wisconsin and Florida take a day off I think), and it is mainly an excuse to get hammered (source).  Officially, it celebrates the the battles of Lexington and Concord, which happened 238 years ago.  In these battles 49 Americans and 73 British were killed.  It was the first (minor skirmish really) of the American Revolutionary War.  It is, essentially, a local holiday and unknown.

So why the hell was the Boston Marathon targeted?  It’s a marathon!  This is people at their best.  People are running, disciplining themselves, losing weight, building relationships, etc.  Moreover, runners start between 10am and 10:40am, and the bombs went off at 3pm.  Everyone who is a super good runner would be done by then.  If you started at 10:30am and ran 9 minute miles, you would finish around 2:25PM.  The top runners are starting to finish at 12:15.  These people are the fast ones who are kicking ass and taking names—the professionals some might say.  So these bombs targeted the slower ones, the 10,000 or so who did not cross, I read in one report, were dads and moms and their families who showed up to cheer them on. They never got to finish.   This runner was knocked down yards away from the finish line, and he is 78 years old.  Kudos.  I wish I am in that great of shape when I am 78.  My apologies for running 26.19 miles and not being able to finish.


The bombs, it seems, were made to hurt people; they were packed with nails and shrapnel to do maximal damage to soft tissue.  CNN says 176 people were injured, and so far 3 are dead, about a dozen or so remain critical.  Among those killed was 8-year old Martin Richard, who came to cheer on his Dad at the finish line who had yet to cross.  His mother and sister are seriously injured.  Pray for them.


So, did I miss something?  Is jogging ruining the world?  Are families cheering on non-professionals crossing the finish-line a threat to anyone?  Is Patriots’ Day a symbol of American greed and exploitation?  Is it a recognizable symbol?  No.

9/11 was different.  Obviously it had more death and destruction, but at least the target  made some tenous degree of sense.  I do not want to overstate here (and of course am not endorsing it by any means), but it seems that anyone who knows anything about how multi-national corporations function around the world can understand some anger towards the capitalist system and the symbols of that system, such as the twin towers.  Also, people who worked in these towers might be presumably (from the terrorists’ perspective) part of the system.  Finally, targeting the World Trade Center did not imply targeting children explicitly.

The Boston Marathon attack, however, is an attack on baseball, hotdogs, and apple pie.  It is an attack on American-ness, or even worse, an attack on Americans living out healthy lifestyles.  Supportive families, including children, were targeted.  This, much more than 9/11, gives some degree of credence to the bizarre phrase, “they hate us for our freedom.”

So I do not know what to make of this.  I am distraught, angry, and if this is international terrorism, then it seems like an idiotic target.

Obviously, I know nothing.  I do know, however, that this is exactly the wrong way to fight America.  Historically, Americans will leave you alone if you leave them to baseball, hotdogs, and apple pie.  We are isolationists at heart.  Even if we currently have a far flung system of military bases, we do not like it, came to it reluctantly, and we will tire of it if you stop bothering us (or invading Poland).

But this is not the way to make us tire.  This unites us and gives us energy.  My prediction: about 200 million Americans will be joining Massachusetts in celebrating Patriots’ Day next year on Monday April 21, 2014.

Mark your calendars.  I’m ordering kegs of Sam Adams Boston Lager now.  Go Paul Revere!  Go America!  U-S-A!

Why Wars Start

While I was in Sri Lanka, I was working on a new manuscript on pacifism and just war theories.  One pacifist claim I was thinking about is the notion that violence begets violence.  Undoubtedly, this insight is true and useful for understanding cyclical violence, but I started finding wars where violence did not beget violence, or where at least one has to make conceptual somersaults or view history through a strong ideological lens to make it true.

So I set about exploring the roots of 172 wars and conflicts, including the 100 biggest wars in known history (by estimated death toll), all of America’s wars (I am American-ish and it is the biggest superpower), and nearly all important wars in the last 75 years (warfare is changing in nature). I am coding conflicts’ origins and how the war was waged with an evolving schema of 37 reasons for why wars start (triggers and underlying causes).  So far I have completed the 43 largest wars in history.  It has taken me approximately 250 hours of work (just under 5 hours per war).

Why am I doing all this?  Four reasons.

First, second, and third, I can experience spiritual clarity for myself as I attempt to comprehend atrocity, indulge my love of history, and simultaneously satisfy my vain desire to win arguments.  At the end of the process, I can say with some level of certainty that I know why wars start.  I can also disabuse idiotic notions.  For instance, many people, notably pacifists, believe that wars start because of a lack of moral fiber.  However, of the 115 warring parties I have examined, I have found exactly four warring parties whose dominant actors likely considered their involvement in the war to be immoral.

Of these four, only one played an important role in starting the conflict itself: the Yan Dynasty in the An Shi Rebellion.  Therefore, I can say with some certainty that cruel intentions do not start wars. Also, from my research so far, I think that violence does beget wars, but it is not one of the top reasons why most wars start. By the way, again from this preliminary work, religion does not appear to be a major cause either.

My fourth and final reason for looking at why wars start is to end wars.  Once we have figured out why wars start, we might figure out patterns, leverage points, and ways to end them, and be able to guide masses of people in modern democracies towards that end.  Of course, I will fail at this if I am doing all this research myself.  Even people who know me and trust my intelligence and goodwill will wonder about my biases and where I am getting my information.

So here is the big idea:  Enlist a host of intellectuals in identifying the historical causes of warfare and run the numbers. Someone somewhere (not me, I hope, because I have other big ideas that interest me more) needs to get a foundation on board to figure out and coordinate a global effort. From what I understand, some of these activities are being done to various extents. I do not know who, if anyone, is doing them all.

  1. Identify a core team of historians and political scientists to create a rubric for judging the reasons for wars (like my schema).   
  2. Identify ethnically and politically diverse teams of historians who can summarize the historical account of the causal chain that produced a war, how it was waged, and the mindset of the major participants.
  3. Pilot the schema and 172 war descriptions with 10 intellectuals who will grade the reasons for why the war started.
  4. Adjust schema and summaries as needed.
  5. Recruit the top 150 intellectuals in the world with diverse political, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds to grade each war.
  6. Run the numbers.

The goal: at the end of the day, we can know objectively, or as close we can get to objectivity, why wars start. Of course, the process might be different. For example, we might rely solely on historians to identify the causes according to my rubric, but the goal is still the same.

Some possible findings:

  • We might find out that wars start for very innocuous reasons that are preventable or at least predictable.  For example, the biggest cause of wars that I have seen so far is the emergence of power vacuums.  This, of course, is not the cause of all wars, but it has been a primary cause of 29 out of the 43 I have studied so far.  An obvious example of an exception would include the Jewish wars against the Roman occupation.  
  • We might find that violence does in fact beget violence.
  • We might find that wars are caused by inequality.
  • Moreover, we might discover the causes of different types of wars.  Civil wars, from my research, often have very different causes than wars between nations, as do ongoing unresolved conflicts that span generations (e.g., Isreal/Palestine).  Perhaps, conflicts with such different structures should not be compared.

Being able to have some objectivity when making the claims about the historical causes of warfare, especially the wars waged in the last 50 years, might help focus our discussions on the biggest causes and have numerous other benefits.

So now I am left wondering. Who is already doing this?  I talked to Alicia about this and she mentioned how some people are doing similar things at the Uppsala Conflict Data Program and the International Peace Research Institute. I need to learn about this more, but for now, I thought I would share the idea and see if I could get any thoughts.

Money is Power—Since Last Week Maybe

So in addition to strategic planning with Habitat, and relaxing, this summer I have been drafting a manuscript on just-war theory and pacifism.  As part of that project, I am conducting a survey of about 150 major wars and conflicts throughout recorded history.  I want to get some sense of what actually causes wars and when they might be justified.  I have finished 40 so far and it is, in a word, fascinating.

I discovered the An Lushan Rebellion of 755-763 in China, where potentially 15% of the worldwide population was wiped out.   I also discovered that Afghanistan was a very peaceful and stable monarchy from 1933-1973 that was progressively modernizing.  Trouble started when a progressive king pushed democratic reforms, which led to communists finding their way into the government, which led to a backlash, which led to a communist coup, which led to a soviet invasion, and the rest is history.

I will post more random observations that may or may not find their way into the manuscript, but I wanted to share one right now that likely will not: it is interesting how in earlier epochs of history military power was surprisingly unconnected to money and economic power.  In an earlier time, though still unlikely, the little guy could really take on the big guy and win.  Today, economic might is tied directly to military might, and the rich country is, almost automatically, the more powerful. Obviously, the country that can produce more tanks, guns, aircraft, ammunition, food, etc., should generally win.  However, before the industrial revolution, a bigger economy did not guarantee your safety and better military technology was not automatically had through vibrant industry.  Consider these examples:

  1. Ancient greece before Pericles or the Aetolian League was, compared to it’s neighbors Egypt and Persia for example, a cultural backwater of poor sots, of city-states trying to scratch out a living on relatively infertile lands and a comparatively fish-less sea.  Egypt was already a well-established and wealthy civilization.  When the Athenians and Spartans fought the Persians, it was roughly equivalent to America fighting Honduras, and Honduras winning.  The greeks might not have had much money, or commerce, or industry, but they had the phalanx, and that was enough to defend themselves against the mighty Persian empire.
  2. Even within the Greeks, Sparta was the dominant power in Greece, and beat the Athenians at the height of Athenian power.  But they were famously poor.  Please enjoy the following quote from Thucydides that I love dearly (I neglected to include this when I first published this post).  It comes at the beginning of his brilliant account of the Peloponnesian War. It seems to me incredibly far-sighted. The man had a proper sense of history, and makes a clear point: wealth does not equal power.”Suppose the city of Sparta to be deserted, and nothing left but the temples and the ground-plan, distant ages would be very unwilling to believe that the power of the Lacedaemonians was at all equal to their fame. And yet they own two-fifths of the Peloponnesus, and are acknowledged leaders of the whole, as well as of numerous allies in the rest of Hellas. But their city is not built continuously, and has no splendid temples or other edifices; it rather resembles a group of villages like the ancient towns of Hellas, and would therefore make a poor show. Whereas, if the same fate befell the Athenians, the ruins of Athens would strike the eye, and we should infer their power to have been twice as great as it really is. We ought not then to be unduly skeptical. The greatness of cities should be estimated by their real power and not by appearances.”  Source.   Emphasis added.
  3. Alexander the Great, a Macedonian, conquered the persians, and the Egyptians, and the Greeks, and others too.  He did not have much more money.  Instead, he had a phalanx too, but one in which they got rid of their shields so they could hold longer spears.
  4. Rome, that pantheon of wealth and economic power, fell prey to relatively poor barbarian hordes.
  5. The mongols were poor nomadic peoples whose hordes conquered the wealthy Chinese civilization, the wealthy Persians, and many others.  Those steppe peoples had excellent cavalry, but very little money or economic power.
  6. The nomadic Arabs conquered Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Persia, the Byzantines, etc., and they also did not have incredible economic might.
  7. The English under queen Elizabeth went up against the mighty Spanish, who were far superior in money and arms, and yet were still defeated.

The list goes on…

It is hard to imagine this world because it is so different from our own.  Our basic understanding of geopolitics is thwarted.  Imagine if the richest countries in the world fearing invasion by poor neighbors who might covet foreign wealth.  This is a world where the United States would fear an invasion by Haiti, and where starving Haitians figure they might try their hand at an invasion, since, after all, it might succeed.

In theory, I like the old world.  I like the romance of powerful peasant countries.  But perhaps, in our new world order, war will become increasingly unlikely because a poor country can’t just invade a rich country because they covet foreign wealth.  But it also means that the rich will get richer, and their wealth will be unavailable to the poor, even if they are incredible soldiers led by Alexander the Great himself.

But maybe I am wrong.  But what about Vietnam?   What about Afghanistan?  Aren’t these modern examples of the little economy beating the big economy?  Perhaps, or perhaps these are exceptions that prove the rule, or perhaps victory of the little guy over the big guy is still possible—at least when the little guy’s military equipment is being shipped in from rival big guys’.

I Was Wrong…

…the American Civil War was not about states’ rights, but about the South’s desire to keep slaves.

As you may be aware, I take a bit of pride in my knowledge of U.S. history, especially in knowing more than most ‘real’ Americans.  Getting a perfect score on my AP US History exam in high school, and my Mother teaching me thirty or so American songs like the Caisson Song, Goober Peas, and all 6 verses of When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, guaranteed me deep insight and a place in respectable society.

Seriously, before a week ago I thought that the Civil War is more aptly called the War of Northern Aggression and that, instead of slavery, it was really about states’ rights.  My Uncle, a retired Virginia State trooper, explains that throughout our history, the United States has generally encouraged the liberation of peoples rebelling in favor of self-rule, but only when they rebel in other countries.  Good point.  And, after all, as my friends and old neighbors in Atlanta, Georgia might point out, the South did not invade the North; they would have been happy to leave the North alone.  The North were invaders and then occupiers.  They could not stomach peaceful secession.

Also, I thought that slavery, rather than being the reason for war, was merely the catalyst for it; it could have been any number of other issues that would have challenged the Constitution’s lack of clarity on whether or not a state was allowed to secede from the Union.  The incidental issue of abolition, though morally upright, happened to be what the North was trying to ram down southern throats.

So I have held my nose up at those simple-minded people who read today’s morality into the motivation of the North—who don’t really know history.  Most Unionists were as racist as most Southerners, and still are.  Yet, while I still think there is good reason to call the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression,” I no longer think the war was really about states’ rights for three reasons.

First, in the compromise of 1850, the North sought and passed a provision guaranteeing that the North would help return slaves discovered in its territories.  This amounted to free states, that had passed laws banning slavery, who thought slavery was wrong, being forced to abide by the rules of another State that they strongly disagreed with.

(This also had the effect of generating a backlash of anti-slavery sentiment among Northerners who, though racist and quite willing to allow the institution of slavery to exist if out of sight, were not comfortable with the immorality that was being paraded in front of them.  I see striking similarities to the spread of pro-LGBT laws in America, which could cause a backlash if imposed on populations not yet ready it.)

Secondly, the South was unwilling to allow new states to decide for themselves, when entering the Union, whether they would be slave or free.  Because of the even balance of power in the Senate, slave states pushed the United States to mandate some territories to become slave states, even if they did not necessarily want to be.  At the time, the South argued that this did not violate states’ rights because a territory is not yet a state, but that is misguided for two reasons.  First, after a territory becomes a state, it would then need to acquire the rights of a state, which should include the power to decide whether it wants to change to a slave or free state.  Secondly, at the core of the ideology of states’ rights is the principle of self-rule—it should not matter if the area is a territory or a state, they still should have the right to self-determination.  This was violated in many ways.

In the Missouri Compromise, all land below the 36°30’ parallel (southern border of Missouri) was guaranteed to become slave states.  Because of this, efforts were made to annex foreign land and make them slave states.  Unsuccessful plans included annexing Cuba & Nicaragua.  Successful plans include the Mexican War, which was fought in large part by James K. Polk as a land-grab, not just for the United States, but for the slave-holding South.  Finally, the South wanted Kansas, when it joined the Union, to become a slave state, though in main its people did not want slavery.  Eventually it would become a free-state, but only after wrangling in Congress, bloodshed (150 killed or injured), and a raft of Missourians coming over the state line to vote illegally for pro-slavery constitutions.  Of course, this also broke the South’s compromise with the North: Kansas was above the 36° 30’ parallel.

What drives this point home for me, that the South was not really interested in States’ Rights, is that the Democrats, the only truly national political party at the time, with deep roots in the South and pro-slavery policies, tried desperately to hold together a national coalition by appealing to self-determinination: a middle ground which guaranteed the rights of states and territories to decide for themselves.  Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic nominee in 1860, was fighting for states’ rights.  But the South would not have it.  So, while 14 out of 15 slave states had voted Democrat in 1856, Douglas only got one in 1860.  Instead, Southerners opted for John C. Breckenridge, a pro-slavery candidate, who won 11 out of 15 slave states.  But Lincoln swept the North and became president.

The final reason why the Civil War was not really about states’ rights has to do with the South’s reaction to Lincoln’s victory.  What must be understood is that, since George Washington, only moderate and pro-slavery presidents had been elected. In fact, of the 15 presidents before Lincoln, five did not own slaves and 10 did, most of them Virginians and southerners.  Of those 10, eight owned slaves while they served as president.  Of the five who never owned slaves, two were John Adams, a practical moderate, and his son, John Quincy, who was powerless.  The other three directly preceded Lincoln: Buchanan (Dem), Fillmore (Dem), and Pierce (Whig).  They were picked in large part because of their acceptance of slavery.  (Source cited by is here.)

In other words, for years, abolitionists had been losing elections and accepting them anyway.  This, after all, is the essence of democracy.  But, when the abolitionists had won, the South could not accept the outcome.  They did not wait for their cherished states’ rights to actually get trampled on.  Seven states seceded before Lincoln even took office.

Ironically, Lincoln was a clear-eyed pragmatist who would have probably been quite reasonable and measured in his policies.  His Emancipation Proclamation is rightly understood as a war measure, meant to weaken the economy of states that were in rebellion, and to muzzle any possibility of France or England, both having already abolished slavery, coming to the aid of the confederacy.  Also, the Proclamation did not free slaves in Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware, and specifically excluded numerous counties in some other states.  Lincoln did this so as to not push border states to join the Confederate cause.  As a result, some of these states did not ban slavery until they ratified the 13th amendment over three years later—6 months after the war was over.  This points to the likelihood that while Abraham would have certainly applied pressure with an aim to end slavery, he was not prone towards ideological or drastic measures.  But the south took their marbles and went home, before their states’ rights were even infringed on, but after it was clear that their power in the federal government to protect the institution of slavery was waning.

After listening to about 30 lectures detailing the first 80 years of American History (6 part Heritage Series), it is difficult for me to see this era as being dominated by a burgeoning crisis of states’ rights—of the majority of states forcing their will on the few.  Rather, we are witnessing, primarily in the South, increased racism, increased dependence on slavery, and increased fear that necessitated the preservation of their power so that they could continue and spread the institution of slavery.

But of course, “the American Civil War was about the South’s desire to keep slaves” is a sweeping historical statement.  There were many other factors involved, economic and otherwise.  In the end, it is probably only mostly true—I’d say about three fifths.

Pandas – Epic Fail

I recently read a short story about pandas, watched 2 documentaries on pandas, and enjoyed Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2 .  In my newfound expertise, have come to the conclusion that pandas are entirely pathetic creatures. First off, 99% of their diet is bamboo–delicious and not at all nutritious.  A true bear, they have carnivore specific genes, carnivore teeth, and a carnivore digestive system, so they derive even less energy and protein from their food.  They can’t hibernate for the winter because there is no way for them to store up enough fat.  They don’t like moving around much.  And they avoid mountains because it takes too much energy to climb.  Males weigh up to 350 lbs.  Females up to 280.  They eat 20-30 lbs of bamboo shoots a day and can poop, with all that good roughage, up to 40 times a day.  The rest of the Panda’s diet, the 1%, is other grasses, wild tubers, small birds, rodents, or carrion.

Pandas have very short life spans and sexually productive periods.  They lose interest in mating once captured.  Even in the wild they can’t raise more than one cub at a time–if more than one cub is born one is left to die–because their milk is so low in nutrition.  And the cubs need nutrition.  They start out pink, blind and furless, at a whopping 3.5-4.6 ounces.

In contrast, black bears weigh around 300 lbs and will eat nearly anything.  Polar bears eat almost nothing but meat and weigh up to 1500 lbs.  Grizzly bears also weigh up to 1500 lbs.


When my brother was in ninth grade he told me something that has stuck with me.  The best stories are those in which normal everyday people discover something about themselves, something special, some heritage, special skill, or destiny, that launches them into a life of adventure, excellence, and self-fulfillment.

I guess I am waiting for the Giant Panda to remember it’s a kickass bear.

Assassination Rocks!

Most of the world is celebrating Osama bin Laden‘s death.  Some, however, are recoiling from that celebration and mourning the loss of life.  Both groups annoy me, but only if both groups are as single dimensional as my single dimensional description of them.

On the one hand, bringing an end to bin Laden’s exploits is a wonderful thing.  He killed lots of people and would kill more.  It also is a good morale booster and makes the West look and feel less incompetent and idiotic (“Seriously?  This guy walked free for almost 10 years after masterminding the single biggest terrorist attack in world history against the most powerful country in the world?”).  I am happy that we have ended this rallying symbol for Islamic fundamentalism.  However, I regret that we could not have had a trial for him as I think that would have been cathartic for society.  Trials are what separates societal civil justice from street gang vigilantism, and, since street gang vigilantism is no doubt a major goal and modus operandi of Islamic terrorist organizations, it’s too bad we couldn’t nab Osama and be rub-it-in-your-face civil to him.  But assassination is better than nothing.

On the other hand, assassination celebrations are weird things.  As a Christian, I believe that bin Laden was loved by Jesus just as much as me, you, or Mother Theresa.  God’s grace is as offensive as shit.  When Jesus died on the cross, he died for bin Laden.  He thought of bin Laden’s despicable actions, but also how beautiful he was as a human being and how passionately he would pursue his beliefs.  Yes, Osama had good qualities.  He will join the ranks of amazing people who did bad things like Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Genghis Kahn, Napoleon, etc.  All these men had incredible talents that are admirable.  Even douche-bags of less grandeur, the local annoying jerk say, has admirable qualities.  He or she has a mother.  He or she is beautiful.

However, I barely have time to mourn for those who have not killed thousands of people indiscriminately out of some crazy religious calling.  I barely have time to mourn child hunger, the African Aids epidemic, or my friend’s problems with depression.  In fact, the only reason that I can see to single out bin Laden’s death as something to mourn is because other people are celebrating it.  In other words, it’s a stellar opportunity to act morally superior.

Finally, as many of you know, I am not a fan of punishment or anyone, especially Christians, who want to deal it out.  Justice is God’s to do, and he does it in the afterlife I’m pretty sure if at all (note “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” and Christ’s parable about the workers in the field).  So, I see Osama’s death as a means to an end and not an end itself.

So, I think our appropriate response to Osama’s death is celebration with a moment or two to pause and say, “Ok, assassination is not ideal.  Ok, God loved bin Laden just as much as he loves me.  Ok, I like his death’s good effects more than just the fact of his death.”  Then we drink a beer (or two), come up with a few cheesy movie lines to use as toasts (e.g. “Hijack this!” and “To the liberation of bearded men everywhere”), and wake up the next day and go about our business in arresting the suffering of others and the depravity of ourselves.

…in other news, Donald Trump called Seth Meyers a stutterer in what appeared to be a somewhat derogatory way.  Of course, I have an opinion, as I am deeply concerned with what Donald Trump thinks of me.