Tag Archives: History

Torture, Survival, and Forgiveness in World War II Japan

My mind was elsewhere today. I was down due to a couple simple twists and turns of life, I nevertheless couldn’t help but get pulled into and finish the 500 page Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s a biography of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner who survived 47 days on the Pacific ocean in a raft, 3 years as a prisoner of war, and a lifetime of attempting normalcy in a society that cannot possibility relate to the psychological ordeal he went through.

Surviving One Step at a Time

In some ways, his story is one that has been experienced by millions of soldiers in the past century. His story represents the quiet suffering of millions, each with their own  journey that too often came to a darker ending. I’m not giving away much of the story here, what I said so far is revealed up front. You should read the book, especially in a time when you’re going through something challenging yourself. It will inspire you to learn of the depth of perseverance that rests in each one of us.

As Zamperini says himself, if he knew ahead of time that he would have to go through all that he went through, he would most certainly commit suicide. But when you break it all down day by day, step by step, the mind can bare the deepest solitude and the harshest torture.

Forgiving Evil

“The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when their tormentors suffer.”

Mutsuhiro_WatanabeFrom reading interviews with survivors of the Holocaust, it often comes through that forgiveness is liberating but is also damn near impossible for most people. In Louie Zamperini’s case the embodiment of evil was one man (picture left): Mutsuhiro Watanabe (aka “The Bird”). The Bird derived erotic pleasure from torture. He was weak-willed, jealous, insecure, and psychotic. Perhaps the greatest challenge of Zamperini’s life is the forgiving of this man.

For Zamperini, the answer was in discovering God. I was disappointed at first to see the transformation of this unbreakable will through a religious awakening, but perhaps there is no greater example of the end justifying the means. I wished he would have overcome this final challenge without resorting to a belief in a higher being. It felt like an escape rather than an “overcoming”. But again, in this case, the end justifies the means. This man would not be broken.

A Mother’s Unconditional Love

One other beautiful and morally-wrenching aspect of the story is the love of Mutsuhiro Watanabe’s mother towards her son. Her unwillingness to give up The Bird (a public monster, torturer of hundreds, and one of the biggest Japanese war criminals of WWII) to the authorities given the opportunity, showed the ability of a mother’s love to transcend the bounds of reason and morality. While I found both human beings despicable, there was something very human about that kind of love: the unbreakable bond of family.

Love Versus Principle in a Time of Moral Chaos

Ewald-Heinrich-von-Kleist-assassination-plotA friend posted a link about the passing of Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist. He was a German soldier and one of the participants of the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944. One of the reasons I return to this period in our history often is because of how many brutally raw moral dilemmas and tests of will it contains.

The story of Von Kleist is yet another moving example. As a young man of 22 at the time of the assassination plot, he volunteered to wear a “suicide vest”. The fascinating part of that is that he discussed this idea with his father (a longtime member of the German resistance movement against Hitler). In the above article: Von Kleist remembered explaining the suicide plot to his father, who paused only briefly before telling his 22-year-old son: “Yes, you have to do this.”

That, to me, is a dark and disturbing window into the moral chaos of Hitler’s Germany. Just imagine the weight of those words in the moment they were uttered and in the years after.

North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan: Rhetoric Versus Reality

north-korea-an-absurd-display-of-aggressionWe have to be very careful listening to political leaders who make wildly aggressive statements. Foreign policy is a game of poker not a game of chess. There’s a lot of uncertainty and thus a lot of room for playing with degrees of truth. Bold public announcements do not necessarily represent any real intent for action. It may be nothing more than a posturing for leverage in international relations or even just fodder for the internal propaganda machine.

Yesterday, North Korea has threatened a nuclear attack on the United States in the name of world peace. Hitler produced some of the same rhetoric in the mid and late 1930’s. He claimed that military power was a way to defend Germany of “evil” that was preventing a peaceful prosperous existence.

So, how can we tell the difference between Hitler and Kim Jong-un? It’s seems that the general public in the United States does not take the young North Korean leader seriously, much like the majority of Americans did not take Hitler seriously until the war began. I think that we have to (1) gather the best facts/intelligence and (2) use extreme caution in making any aggressive actions. We failed on both #1 and #2 in Iraq. We are failing on #1 and #2 in Iran. Pakistan is incredibly tricky because technically they are a “friend”, but the instability and tension in that part of the world means that of all the nations they are currently the most likely original spark of a nuclear war.

So we need to be very careful to get #1 and #2 right on North Korea. Arguments like the ones made in this report are a good start. It describes why North Korea is powerless to do what it claims. Much like in poker, that means there is some wiggle room for the game of diplomacy. Time for the carrots and the sticks…

How Will History Remember the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

I am 29 now, and despite the probably objections of those older than me, I have enough years behind me to see in my own life that “history” remembers results. Details, such as injury or death of nameless people and the financial costs of decisions are often washed away in the haze of time. On the other hand, daily life is all about those pesky “details”. So we have to be careful not to lose them as the decades pass. But no matter how careful we are, eventually it’s likely to be forgotten.

I’m a great admirer of the intellect and writing ability of Christopher Hitchens. But I have always listened to his defense of the Iraq war with a polite disapproving silence.

saddam-hussein-statue-fallingHis argument is: Saddam was an evil dictator. U.S. got rid of him. The end.

To Hitchens that very important result overwhelms the details: the cost of the war, the deception around its origins, the history of the Iraq-US relationship, the precedent it set for future wars, the policies of torture, domestic spying, etc, and the fact that there are a lot of other oppressive governments throughout the world that we do nothing about.

Something Hitches said in a debate on this topic caught my attention, and it’s why I wrote this note. He said as a closing declaration that history will remember the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan only for the fact that we removed Saddam Hussein from power.

And in my usual disapproving silence I contemplated that statement. Perhaps he is right. History remembers results. And one of the only clear results of these wars is that Saddam was removed from power. Everything else is complex and drenched in uncertainty. The deaths, the money, the misinformation might very well be forgotten.

I am troubled by that thought, but I’m only troubled by it as much as I am when I consider how big the universe is and how small we are in comparison. This is the way of time and civilization. Most of the things of concern to us today, yesterday, and in the last century, will be forgotten and perhaps sooner than we imagine.

Polite Conversation in the Early Days of Nazi Germany

William-Dodd_178608kI’m reading In the Garden of Beasts which is the story of an American professor (not much different than me 30 years from now) serving as ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in 1933.

The story is terrifying because it describes a civil world on the verge of turning to destructive hatred and insanity, and shows how easy it is to ignore the signs of impending doom. The momentum of polite conversation at a respectable dinner party can drown out the strongest of our moral intuitions.

Again, the story is terrifying because I continue putting myself in the place of the main character, William E Dodd, and fail to ask the questions I wish I was fearless enough to ask. I am haunted by the thought that the people who were committing the worst atrocities in the 1940’s were not much different than the average American just a decade before.

I’d like to believe that the internet has changed the vulnerability of the masses to brain-washing. It has put massive stores of information at our fingertips. But perhaps, I’m being naive in that optimism and atrocities are always around the corner, just as long as we wait for the generation that remembers the previous one to die out.

I highly recommend the book because unlike other perspectives on the Third Reich, this one focuses exclusively on that most critical transition between something very similar to modern American society to the completely breakdown of thereof under Hitler.

Church of Satan: It’s Not What You Think It Is

The magic of YouTube is such that I can be watching a lecture on four dimensional pseudo-Riemannian manifolds and in the related videos section see a documentary on the “Church of Satan”. I would love to see the inner workings of the Google suggestion algorithm that came up with that based on my YouTube history.

I was very surprised to learn what Satanism is, and in the process got a valuable lesson about the danger and the power in what you name your organization. It’s clear that people will often literally judge a book by it’s cover, and will often passionate and aggressively oppose an idea or group based on nothing more than its name. We are truly an awesome silly primate species.

When I say “Satanism” or “Church of Satan”, what do you think it is?

If you’re anything like me, I think of some variety of heavy metal fan, everything from the melodic 80’s metal of Iron Maiden to the absurd intensity of death metal. Perhaps those of you who are Christian (or were brought up Christian) probably imagine something on a religious theme, maybe a group of people who embrace the evil aspects of human nature.

Well, in reality, as about 30 minutes of reading has led me to understand, Church of Satan is to religion is what Stephen Colbert is to the modern Republican party. There is nothing religious about it, it’s just a giant dark satirical Halloween party. It was started in the 60’s by one guy, Anton LaVey, who basically enjoyed provoking people, and in the process picked up a large following.

What he and the Church of Satan are is just “objectivists in halloween costumes”. PS: Objectivism is the name adopted for Ayn Rand’s philosophy. It’s an organization that promotes atheism, rational thinking, individual freedom, and a productive life. But it pushes that further into embracing all the natural things that are often condemned by religion such as sexuality, competition, aggression, envy, etc. I think it gets a little weird in the sexuality aspect, but no more weird than nudist parties. It’s strange but harmless.

To be honest, these folks creep me out a bit. They are certainly not the type I would want to “have a beer with”, but I think the Church of Satan is kind of funny at least in its original intent. Its founder (Anton LaVey) is clearly a very funny (in a sick way) guy. The problem is when you name your organization after the symbol of evil for many religious people, you’re going to get the kind of attention that could be counter-productive.

So next time you start a business or a club, try to avoid using Satan in the title unless you’re starting an Ozzy Osbourne fan club, in which case Satan might be a good call.

By the way, when I hear “Satan” the first image that pops into my head is probably the most hilarious cartoon character of all time: Satan from South Park (pictured below).

Satan's Sweet 16 Halloween party from South Park 1011

Compulsory Military Service in Russia

Like many countries in the world, Russia has compulsory military service for males of 18 to 27 years of age. The required length of service was 2 years, but by the time I turned 18 it was reduced to 18 months, and eventually down to 1 year in (I believe) 2008.

Russia has the second biggest army in the world with 1.5 million personnel (behind China, and just ahead of the United States). And yet, only about 10% of eligible males report for duty. Everyone else uses any legal and illegal means to dodge the draft. There are two reasons for this:

First, the conditions in the Army are reportedly horrible (bullying, torture, rape, malnutrition, etc). Five to ten thousand conscripts die every year due to suicide, medical negligence, avoidable diseases, etc.

Second, there is no overwhelming national pride in Russia associated with this compulsory military service. I think in order for it to work, people need to believe that you are giving something to your country for the benefit of your fellow citizens.

Here’s a quick video discussion the draft dodgers:

When people argue against mandatory military or civil service, they do well by bringing up Russia as an example of a system where it has more negative than positive effects.

I have no experience with compulsory service, so I feel unjustified in defending the idea, but I do believe from my conversation with friends that served in the military that it does have potential positive effects when managed well. Here is an example of a good argument for it to be implemented in the United States.

Everyone Has a Holiday Except the Nihilists

pastafarianismThe holiday season (aka the shopping season) in America starts with Thanksgiving and ends with New Years day. In a bizarre side-effect of commercialization of Christmas, a number of other holidays have sprung up in prominence as a way to make everyone (no matter your beliefs) feel the holiday cheer (and spend money). For example, picture left is a representative of the Pastafarian religion celebrating their holy day with the ambiguous but easy-to-remember name of “Holiday”.

The following are some holidays I’m aware of that are the Apples and Google to the Microsoft that is Christmas.

The Jewish Holiday

Coming from a family of strongly rooted Jewish heritage, I have to say that Hanukkah used to be a source of embarrassment to me on a philosophical level. It’s not a major Jewish holiday and has gained prominence solely (it seems) as a way for Jewish families to participate in Christmas-style gift giving. In recent years though I’ve come to accept that holidays are often less about some particular message (religious or otherwise) but more about an excuse to spend time with friends and family. So whatever you call it, it’s fine with me.

The Atheist Holidays

Let’s be honest, most of the funniest people on this planet are all atheist or at least take a very satirical view towards organized religion. So it’s no surprise that there is a great variety of holidays for the atheists among us to choose:

  • Festivus: Popularized by Seinfeld, it’s a secular holiday built on the exact opposite of what commercialization has made of Christmas. Instead of a Christmas tree there is a Festivus pole. There’s the Airing of Grievances, Feats of Strength, and of course the Festivus miracles which is the term used for easily-explainable events.
  • Newtonmas: December 25th is the birthday of Isaac Newton under the old Julian calendar. This is a popular holiday among skeptics as a parody of the religious view of the natural world. Jesus, to many, is an icon (perhaps unjustly) of unscientific thinking, and relying on faith vs reason in understanding the workings of our mind, society, and the universe.
  • Holiday: A little know, but my favorite holiday in terms of comedic value is called simply “Holiday”, and is the Christmas competitor from the “religion” of Pastafarianism (officially called the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster). It does not take place on a specific date and does not have any requirements, because Pastafarians “reject formalism”.

The Black History Holiday

I never liked Kwanza. I know I’m a white guy, so my opinion should theoretically not matter on this subject, but I’ll voice it anyway. It has evolved into a positive holiday of celebrating African American heritage and unity. However, it was born on a message of segregation  as an anti-Christmas anti-white holiday. I think it served its purpose well as part of the civil rights struggle of the 60s, but beyond that it seems more like a symbol of separation than unity. That’s probably why only about 1 percent of African Americans celebrate it. I was always a believer in the Martin Luther King Jr message of unity vs the Malcom X’s message of separation. This holiday to me is unfortunately too intricately connected to the history of the latter, but perhaps that will change with the passing of time.

The Capitalist Holiday

The holiday season is a holiday in itself for the capitalists. If you have products to sell, this is a good time to sell it. In just online shopping, there’s $35 billion of American dollars on the line every year. That’s a reason for business owners to be filled with cheer, even in difficult economic times.

Read About Ideas With Which You Disagree

Main point: Learn constantly, with an open mind, and consider the possibility that you might be wrong about things you’ve believed for a day, a year, or your whole life.

At any given point in time, I have a well-defined opinion on any one specific topic (assuming I’ve considered it for at least a little bit). Sometimes the opinion is firm, sometimes it’s shaky, sometimes it’s well-thought-out, and sometimes it based on a couple of seconds of intuition and common sense reasoning. But no matter where I stand, and how I arrive there, I try to keep an open mind. I try to imagine that there is a possibility that I may be wrong even about the ideas that I’ve studied for years. “Try” is the key word here, because admitting to yourself you’re wrong is not easy, and I often fail, because like most people I can be stubborn and irrational.

Anyway, what I find particularly fascinating, is people unwillingness to read about ideas with which they disagree. People who believe in the idea that government can do a lot of good seem to be unwilling to read literature on anarcho-capitalism, objectivism, libertarianism, or classical liberalism.

Politics, religion, economics, philosophy, psychology, sociology, etc are all fields full of “camps”. And if you are in one camp, it somehow becomes difficult to step outside that camp in a genuine attempt to learn and consider alternatives.

I think it’s very important to read not just the opinions similar to your own but also to read those you disagree with. Furthermore, I think it’s important to read extremist literature that has at one time (if not currently) garnered a significant following. For example, I just recently read the second volume of Mein Kampf (Hitler’s manifesto on the ideology behind the National Socialist movement). This book, and any literature involving Hitler, is very difficult for me to read, because of how much of my family and friends are Jewish and have Holocaust victims and survivors in their family’s story. But it’s important for me to read and think about ideas that have lead to so much hatred, murder, and destruction, and that were followed to whatever degree at one time by millions of people. I cannot simply put that part of history in a cardboard box, fill it with tears and anger, and leave it in the attic. I have to consider it often, in order to gain a better understanding of us as individuals, us as a nation, and us as a society.

Some Practical Suggestions from Around the Web

There are a lot of different resources on the web that help you explore opinions you disagree with. After writing this blog post I googled around and found an excellent blog post on how to read books you disagree with. The three suggestions that blog post makes is:

  1. Cycling: Read one “on” (where you disagree with the majority of ideas in it) and one “off” (where you agree with the majority of ideas in it).
  2. Fringe Books: Not sure what this one means exactly, but I think he means picks books that are full of ideas about which you are uncertain or don’t know enough, and so statistically you will agree with some parts and disagree with other parts.
  3. Look for Quality, Not Perspective: This is really the best advice, and one that I have always tried to follow. The world of books is bigger than anyone can read in a thousand lifetimes, so it’s always wise to pick the best representatives of its ilk.

Waldseemuller Map: The Mona Lisa of the Cartography Nerds

First, a side note: With the title, I don’t mean to be poking fun at the scholars that dedicate their life to the study of maps, but I love how clearly obsessed they are with the subject to the point where basic grooming and social skills take a distant second place in the priority list. In all honesty, I deeply respect people that are that passionate about any subject.

Alright, onward to the Waldseemuller map:

The U.S. Library of Congress bought the only surviving copy (of originally 1,000 copies) for $10,000,000 in 2001.

This map is a window into how the world was seen by the Europeans of 500 years ago. It’s thought to be the first time that America was put on a map as not being just the east coast of Asia or India. This is such a brilliant discovery if you put yourself in a mindset where everyone around you believes that what was discovered by Columbus and Vespucci was India or Asia. To understand from their accounts that this was a different continent all together is a brilliant discovery that defines the Age of Exploration.

In some ways, in the 21st century we face the same degree of uncertainty about space as people of the 15th and 16th century did about geography. Are there inhabitable planets out there? Is there life out there? Is there intelligent life?

By the way, there’s a nice program on a book about this map from C-SPAN. Check it out: The Fourth Part of the World.

Also, for the especially curious, here’s a 100 mb version of the map where you can study the tiniest details. For the record, saving the map in Ubuntu Linux and opening it in the default image viewer crashed my computer.