Monday, November 23, 2015

From the Crusades to Jihad: How will the world put Daesh down?

"If one looks back over the many U.S. interventions around the globe, one factor looms large. When Washington allied with a local force capable and viewed as legitimate, it succeeded. But without such locals, all the outside effort, aid, firepower and training can only do so much--whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria." Fareed Zacharia, Wash.Post, 10/1/15.

"It becomes increasingly easy to rationalize our actions in the name of expediency when facing difficult decision - to choose a path where the ends justify the means.  I want to ask you to challenge this philosophy.  I want to humbly suggest that you be the guardians of a more complicated truth: that the means are as important--and sometimes even more important--than the ends."  Beau Biden, words of wisdom

"What ISIS Really Wants," by Graeme Wood, Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 22, 2015
The Crusades have morphed into Jihad.  The same extremist scenario of the Middle Ages is playing itself out in the 21st century.  President Obama made the comparison at a prayer breakfast, and although he was attacked for it, I think he was right on.   It's an incredible, almost unthinkable, convergence of the past and the present. Holy Wars without end. Patriarchy run amok.

The same actors are still in the same game and in the same geographic locations.

Back then, around 1100, Catholic extremists responded to Pope Urban's call for a Crusade against Muslims, who at that time had taken over Syria, Jerusalem, the Christian Holy Land.

Today, we have Muslim extremists who invoke Jihad and apocalyptic prophesies to conquer Christians and infidels and hasten the return of the Caliphate and Sharia Law of medieval times. ISIS even uses medieval language from apocalyptic ideology written after Muhammad's death, boasting after the Paris attacks that "Allah granted victory and cast terror into the crusaders' hearts in their own homeland."    (See Liz Goodwin, "The Doomsday ideology of ISIS," Yahoo News, 23 Nov.2015)

Medieval crusaders wore metal amour, helmets and distinctive capes, rode horses, waved Crusader flags bearing a cross, carried swords and shields. They wrecked havoc on the landscape for 200 years.

Today's crusaders wear black balacavas, carry guns like AK-47s, wave black flags with Islamic symbols in white, use cell phones and social media, wear suicide vests, put home-made bombs in public places and on airplanes to blow up innocent victims.

The methods of war may be as different as the weapons du jour and the technology available, but the underlying philosophy is similar: The end justifies the means and by any means necessary to achieve the end.

It's an unbelievable twist of fate, from 12th-century crusaders to 21st-century jihadists, from Christian extremists to Muslim extremists. Violence and death in the name of God. Nothing learned from history.

The Christian Crusades went on for 200 years, basically until Christians and the Catholic Church itself tired of war.  The old enthusiasms began to die out. People longed for peace in their lifetime as the Middle Ages turned into the Renaissance.  They became less concerned about winning future salvation and more concerned about life in the present.

Is this what it will take to defeat the contemporary extremism devouring our planet? How will the world put down Daesh, Boko Harem, al-Qaeda and other extremist Jihadists?

History shows that extremism runs its course, but at a terribly high cost.  It shows that military solutions alone do not work, that they can "only do so much," as Fareed Zacharia reminds us.  Former secretary of defense Chuck Hegel says the same thing: "There is no military solution to this. We are up against an ideology...So we need to define more clearly what our political strategies are, as well as our military strategies. What are our priorities?"

Putin's pummeling of Syria with all his latest multibillion dollar war toys, joining the US, France and others in the violence, won't solve the problem of international terrorism.

Nor will Machiavellian subterfuge and cunning or John Stuart Mill's utilitiarian philosophy that "the end justifies the means," updated by Malcolm X to "by any means necessary."  I understand the impulse behind these views, especially the injustices that lead to this kind of thinking.

But I now see the danger. Beau Biden, shortly before his untimely death, said that "if the means are good, the end will be good."   I've been thinking alot about that. I think we need to move in that direction.

Violence begets violence, lessons from Vietnam, from Iraq, over the eons. Millions killed and maimed, billions wasted.  What do we see now? The more bombing, the more grassroots terrorism.  Terrorist cells proliferate, pop up here and there and everywhere to create death scenes for the daily news.  I fear for Washington, DC, an easy target for suicide bombers, in Metro stations, near monuments and memorials, along Pennsylvania Avenue.

"When will we ever learn?"  Pete Seeger asked, and Peter, Paul and Mary sang. "When will we ever learn."

Crusader historiography asks the same question.  Historian Steven Runciman, expressing the moral outrage of most Crusader scholars, wrote: "High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed....The Holy War was nothing more than a long act of intolerance and destruction in the name of God."

So it is with the contemporary Jihad, all the bombs in the world, all the pummeling of Syria and Iraq, all the military efforts notwithstanding.  Can't we come up with a better way, a more tolerant and humane way to address the extremism of our age? Can the world come together around a common agenda and common purpose to defeat Daesh and the violent terrorism of our day? Can we develop some good means to achieve a good end?

Articles, a reminder of how George W. Bush prodded by Cheney, Rumsfeld and neocons, got us into Iraq, a total deadly and costly failure.  Bush himself has apologized for this disastrous decision.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Curious Chase

Captain America, swinging.
My four-year-old grandson Chase is a whirling dervish of activity, and his language skills are keeping up with him. Constant activity, constant chatter. His curiosity is endless, and his imagination.  He's in to everything.  That's why after he leaves my place things are lost or found in wierd places and little strange things show up.

I woke up this morning and looked at my clock which said 7:00, so I jumped out of bed, made coffee, and....Wait. My kitchen clock says 4:00. Checked my computer. 4:00 am. Checked my clock.  It was upside down. I turned it right side up. Chase had been playing with my clock.
Chase at the park with his friend Evie. 
Another morning I couldn't find my coffee creamer.  I was sure I had some left. Later that day, after buying a new one, I found it, under my kitchen sink. Chase was rearranging my things.  He likes doing that, so I'm often looking for things like keys, my camera, cel phone, pots and pans. Can't take your eyes off him for a minute.

"Mom, are you sure this is Chase?" My daughters think I'm having memory problems, so they check it out from time to time, and other times they are just very solicitous.

Chase is just trying to figure things out, I remind myself.

Once he was playing in my tool box and came at me with a hammer.  Dr. Chase wanted to hit my knee like Dr. Haider and see if it kicks up. I suggested we look for his doctor kit and see if we could find the right kind of hammer.

On the way to that, Chase stepped over some of his little play people.  "Nana, sit right here."  He pats the floor right next to him.  "My people want to talk to you."

On my ipad.  He has one at home, too. He's already
a whiz on computers. Loves his games, like Philip.
Later on, while he seemed to occupy himself, I went looking for some scotch tape. Couldn't find it.  "Chase, do you know where Nana's scotch tape is?"  He smiled, went into my bedroom, looked under my bed, where I keep lots of toys, and pulled out his Woody doll. "It's not a doll, Nana.  I'm a boy." Ok, just Woody.  Woody it turns out had a roll of scotch tape attached to his arm, all wrapped and wadded up, half gone, the rest of the tape holder just hanging there. Woody had broken his arm and needed a cast. Dr. Chase was on it.

Fireman Chase with
cousin Phillip, last year. 
When he's not a doctor he's a lot of other things. A spaceman, a soldier, a robot, Captain America, a fireman, Kevin.
"Kevin?  Who's that," I ask.
"He's home alone and he thinks there's a monster in his house but it isn't really a monster but he gets scared and screams and scares me."
"Oh. the movie "Home Alone?"
"Yes, it's a scary movie.  Kevin gets scared."
"I see.  But they are not monsters really. It's just a movie."
"No, Nana, they are really scary monsters.  I get scared."

"I see,  well how about we look for the pop-up Winnie the Pooh book and find Christopher Robin and Pooh and his friends in the forest? Then we can look at the Wizard of Oz pop-up book." These were my friend Barbie's books, a children's lit expert, and they have gotten great use. Chase is game, and we're on to other things.  A little distraction goes a long way.

Chase also likes to take bins, buckets and pails and dump their contents out on the floor.  It's the dumping he likes best. His toy cars, puzzles, legos, crayons, my brother Loren's marble collection.  Some stuff is ok, but not the marbles. So sometimes we have discussions about that and why it's not a great idea to have hundreds of marbles all over the floor.  The other day I went into the living room and he had dumped out the marbles.

"Darn, Chase. You dumped out the marbles."
"Nana, you said a bad word (pause).  What's a bad word?"
"A bad word is not nice; it 's a word that can hurt your feelings and make you feel sad, or mad."
"My mom says bad words sometimes."

Out of the mouth of babes.  "My brothers say bad words."
Distraction time.  And this one is easy!
Sometimes he wears himself out,
and I get to hug him.
"Do you have brothers?"
"Yes, Kyle and Josh."
"Do you have a sister?"
"Yes, Alli."
"And do you have a cousin? an aunt? a grandma?"  He's got us all pretty much figured out now, and  he'll work on it until it's all right in his mind.

Awe. Chase shares the wonder of
low-flying airplanes with cousin 
Philip and brother Kyle, last Easter.
"Wow, you have a big family. Lucky you! And you have friends too, right?"  He thinks of all his friends, and names them. He loves these conversations.

When I sit with him, he's happy.  His imagination runs free and I get a glimpse into how his complex mind works.  He' always trying to figure things out, see how they work, make sense of things, master his environment wherever he is. The magic years, the precious years.  May they last a long time!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Loren's Birthday Comes Round

Maybe Loren is hiking in heaven. 
November 12.  My brother Loren's birthday has rolled around again.  He would have been 68. Who knows, he might have dreaded the passage of time. On the other hand, he most certainly would have been following the current entertainment circus known as the presidential campaign.  I'm not sure where he would have gone with it. I'm sure he'd like Bernie Sanders, his beliefs and values. He also had great respect for Hillary, and he would be happy to have a woman president.  We might have been in different camps, who knows, but it would have been lots of fun.  He'd have some great rants about the Republican candidates, too, that's for sure.   I miss that. I miss Loren.

Loren, Andy and Me, 2003
in Amsterdam.  Memories are made of this.

Some people tell me he's "in a better place."  I'm not sure but I hope they are right.  Our mom's cousin Bill Form is now with him, after 97 years, along with most of our families on both my grandparents' sides.  We the grandchildren and great grandchildren, and great, great, great grandchildren are still vibrant branches on the old family tree, but the top of the tree is bare.  That's why I want to believe in everlasting life, and reincarnation, and souls that live forever, in the way of Rumi and other mystic poets.

I hope Loren is hiking in heaven surrounded by his goddesses, in a beautiful natural environment, beyond global warming and the desecration of the earth he fought so tirelessly to protect. I hope Loren is in a peaceful and harmonious place without hate, guns, war and violence.

I think I may have seen a sign of Loren's presence when I was in Amsterdam recently, visiting my niece Kaaren, Jeff and their lovely 2-year-old son Parks with my sister Andy. We were walking over a canal, like we did together some 10 years ago. I saw a light behind a church steeple, and I wondered.  He might have been hiking in the hills of Sicily, too, because he embraced history and antiquity and studied those ancient times and places when God was a woman.

Sometimes I think Loren is hovering when I'm reading Mary Oliver, listening to Enya, watching basketball, or writing.  He was curious about everything so Loren is everywhere.  He is everywhere, and in my heart and soul, and he will always mean the world to me.

Here is a song for my beloved brother, a Mary Oliver poem I know he'd like because it's about nature in harmony and at peace with itself.

Song for Autumn
by Mary Oliver  

In the deep fall
     don't you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
     the earth instead of the
 nothingness of air and the endless 
     freshets of wind? And don't you think
of the birds that will come--six, a dozen--to sleep
     inside their bodies? And don't you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
     the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow?  The pond
     vanished, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
     its blue shadows.  And the wind pumps its
bellows.  And at evening especially,
     the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.  

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Sicily Stunning and Shimmering

"To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything." Goethe
Greek amphitheatre at Taromina
Here it is in a beautiful painting by early 20th-century Hungarian artist Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka, now in the National Gallery in Budapest. Kosztka captured the beauty, color and spirit of the place.

A panoramic view of glimmering Taormina,Mt. Etna in background. In Greek mythology Zeus trapped the monster Typhon under Etna. In modern realities, the volcanic soil  supports extensive agriculture, with vineyards, orchards, lemon and fruit groves spread across the lower slopes. Bella! Lots of controls have been established to control the flow of any future eruptions. 
And the crystal blue Mediterranean all around, this photo taken at 2700-year-old Siricusa as we crossed the bridge to its ancient island town of Ortygia with its precious Greek heritage.   
"It's a beautiful mix of cultures," our guide Flavia Condorelli said as our Gate I tour group traveled from Palermo to Erice and around the island.  "I want people to know it and love it as I do."  A guide with a mission.
Only photo I've ever seen of 
Messina in ruins from the 1908 
Mt.Etna eruption, by Wilhelm
Von Gloedon (wikipedia).

I knew Sicily as the birthplace of my dad's mother, Francesca, who was born in Messina and remembered the 1908 Mt. Etna eruption. Over 60,000 people died. It was, I now understand, a miracle she survived, but she never forgot it. That's about all I knew.  I think other grandparents and family members were born elsewhere in Italy and some ended up in Sicily before emigrating to America. My memories are sketchy.

In some ways I thought of Sicily as prosaic, maybe even inferior, compared to mainland Italy and such glorious tourism magnets as Rome, Florence,Venice, Portofino and Cinque Terra. Not as artistic or sophisticated, either.

How wrong I was.

Best lunch ever, me and my sis
celebrating Palermo 
Now of course I deeply regret not asking my grandmother all the questions I had as our Gate 1 tour group drove from exciting Palermo across the hilly island, intensively cultivated wherever possible, surrounded by the vivid blue Mediterranean, and with the ever-present Mt. Etna on the eastern horizon. Excellent weather added to the glow, with the exception of a few sprinkles in Taormina. We all bought unbrellas that we didn't need that day, by the way, the seller right there as we stepped off the bus. Ah well, we just helped the Sicilian economy, I thought.

With super guide Flavia in Erice.
Our bus driver, Gianni, expertly handled the twists and turns of the mountain roads ranging from 4,000 to 11,000 feet, knew them like the back of his hand, while Flavia shared her knowledge and insight. Our daily trips began with a chorus of "Buon giorno, Johnny!" Sumptuous views greeted us at every turn. Breathtaking!

Palermo panorama,by Gabrios 1984, just as we saw it, and the powerful Palermo Cathedral, a symbol of the city since Norman times. It's an interesting mixture of centuries of overlapping architectural styles. In each era, something was removed, added, or changed.  That's Sicily!

Monreale Cathedral (right)
and street scene

Our tour began in Palermo, where we had our first glimpse of the glories of Sicily.  It's a great city in a beautiful natural environment.  It is Sicily's cultural, economic and tourism capital. Fascinating architecture dominates, reflecting the different cultures that have occupied Sicily over the centuries.  We traveled to the nearby hilltop town of Monreale to tour a magnificent Norman Cathedral, its exterior grand, its interior glistening with 12th-century Byzantine mosaics.  Imagine! We walked the streets and plazas of old town, stopping to explore the Palermo Cathedral, which illuminates the unique multicultural history of Sicily. "The cathedral is like a living organism, its majestic body showing the signs of continuity and change, allowing visitors to take a brief but extraordinary journey through a thousand years of history," as a guidebook put it. This is Sicily's fascinating layered history.
Main plaza,Old Palermo
The Il Mirto e la Rosa, where 
we  had a memorable dinner.  
Our Palermo walk took us to the Palazzo dei Normanni and the San Giovanni degli Eremiti, with its striking combination of Norman and Islamic influences; the Porta Nuova, a gateway built in 1583,
and like every other Sicilian monument a living organism of change overtime; and the Plazza Pretoria, dominated by an intricately carved central fountain, a combination of Norman and Baroque styles predominating. Palermo is also noted for its cuisine, and Andy and I enjoyed some of our best meals in its great indoor and outdoor cafes and restaurants, surrounded by centuries of history.

Greek theatre, Siracusa, with tour guide. 
Although Palermo was never a Greek colony, one thing emphasized on this Gate 1 tour was Sicily's Greek heritage, its roots dating back to 430 BC. After our Palermo tour, we became immersed in this ancient Greek past. The Greeks brought philosophy and ethics, art and architecture, intellectualism and education to Sicily, and it flourished. Our local tour guides brought Greek Sicily alive!

To this day, we learned, there is a closer affinity with Greece than with Italy among many Sicilians, a lingering appreciation and connection that surprised me. I never thought of myself as having any Greek DNA, but now I wonder!
Segesta Temple, 5th century
Those who followed the Greeks, after the Roman destruction of Carthage around 750 BC--the Romans, the Vandals (a Germanic tribe), the Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French and Spanish--left mixed legacies. Great architecture, temples and villas, creative cuisine, and often great destruction.

The Romans especially exploited the island without restraint, destroying or building over everything Greek. "The Romans were cruel and oppressive rulers," Patricia, our local guide in Siracusa said, as she walked us through the fantastic ruins of the huge Greek amphitheatre and ancient caves. Other local guides said the same thing, Giovanni at the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, the largest and best preserved temple ruins outside of mainland Greece, and Elizabeth in Taormina at another enormous Greek theater.  These are the towns and sites that preserve and honor the bygone era of Greek Sicily, the birthplace of Archimedes, of great artists and thinkers, perhaps of the Sicilian language itself.

Andy keeping up with our
energetic tour group! 
Lovely Erice  
On the fourth day of our tour, we travelled the winding roads to mountaintop Erice, a wonderfully preserved medieval town with incredible views and a great historical presence.  I have always loved these medieval towns. We walked along the cobblestone streets, lined as well with examples of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture. The unique multicultural mix and layered history of Sicily again! Incredible. Enduring.

To our great delight, we also happened upon the filming of a movie at the crossroads to the towns of Sciacca and Licata. Filmmakers were setting up the scene while actors in the simple dress of Medieval farmers stood around talking. The nearby ceramic shops and bakeries beckoned, however, and we moved on to enjoy more food for the soul, beautiful ceramics, and those delicious Sicilian cookies I remember as a child. Memories of family gatherings flooded back. 

On the way to Erice, we stopped at the 5th-century Temple of Segesta, an awesome presence on the Sicilian landscape. We also visited the Stagnone Lagoon, a natural reserve of low sea water with Saline-salt evaporation ponds.  It was a picturesque scene of white mounds of salt contrasted by working windmills and fishing boats in the sea. Then on to Marsala for wine tasting at one of the province's historic wineries. It was a full and exciting day.
Marsala winery and Stagnone Lagoon, the Salt mines 
Next up, Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples!  We stopped on the way for a tour of the once-luxurious Roman Villa del Casale, where decorative mosaics have been uncovered under centuries of mudslides and debris and are now being preserved. The archeological workmanship, ongoing, is remarkable, along with the wonders of the craft and the scenes of daily life created in an array of  inticate patterns. One large mosaic features women exercising in what looks like modern-day bikinis. Amazing!

Breathtakingly stunning
Taormina, with its winding

streets, plazas and stairways.
With so much creativity filling our heads, we still had two places to visit on our itinerary,Taormina and Siricusa. Both exceeded my expectations. Both encompassed the glorious Greek heritage of Sicily.

After walking, or trying to walk, the black lava-crusted slopes of Mt. Etna, around the Crateri Silvestri, a fascinating close-up view of this rumbling volcano, we headed for Taormina. There we stayed for three glorious nights at a lovely villa, privately owned, in Giardini Naxos, on the Bay of Naxos. Ancient places, sacred spaces. From our balcony we had fantastic views of modern residences built on the hillsides; a Florida-like landscape beautifully planted and graced with statuary; the sea and Mt. Etna clear and bold, not at all menacing.We definitely had "a room with a view." In fact, all our Gate 1 hotels were terrific, well located, clean and comfortable.

Andy and I sat on the balcony of Sant'Alphio Garden in Giardini Naxos in awe. "Can't believe we're here," we'd say. Together, in Sicily, on a magical heritage tour. We felt our brother Loren's spirit, wished he could have been with us in person. Our parents and grandparents, too.
Taromina central plaza around fountain of Diana. .
Taormina and Naxos are ancient towns, inhabited by the indigenous Siculi even before the Greeks arrived. The natural beauty and built environment of the area stunned us as we took in panoramic views, sat on the balcony at sunrise and sunset, saw a beautiful full moon rise over Mt. Etna that mesmerized us, strolled from one historic site to another around the exquisite region. We soaked in the glory and felt the warm glow of a lovely heritage and, I can now admit, an undervalued heritage. This special journey finally put it right. We couldn't imagine how hard it must have been for our ancestors to leave Sicily behind and go to America, a strange land, in search of new opportunities. We couldn't imagine the courage it took and the mixture of sadness, fear and hope. We couldn't imagine the difficulties of adjusting to a new life, not to mention the ingratitude and ignorance of their totally Americanized grandchildren.  And sadly, we didn't ask the important questions of roots and identity when our grandparents, and also our parents, were alive.

At a cafe on Taormina's main square, with new friends. 

Such thoughts carried over to our group's last stop at Siricusa, 
another World Heritage Site.  Our tour guide Patricia led us around the incredible Neapolis Archaeological Park and the "Ear of Dionysus," an awesome limestone cave with outstanding acoustics in a lovely park, to the Greek-Roman amphitheatre, and then to the center of the gorgeous old town of Ortygia.
Down this street to the sea, Siricusa
with Christine and Tom to a neat cafe.

From the hills to the sea, the glory of Greece and Sicily's Grecian past filled our senses. "The Greeks had a good eye for beauty," one guidebook writes, "and were experts at choosing the most strategic sites for their majestic buildings. Their temples, for example, were deliberately decorated with stuccos containing white marble powder, so that they would shine brightly in the rays of the sun." Siricusa outdid them all! 

At Greek-Roman amphitheatre, 
Siracusa. My PCV friends Ilse 
and Jud will recognize this pose!

Of course I sing its praises, the indelible images still fresh, vivid, moving, shining as brightly as those ancient Greek buildings on the mountain tops and the sea.  But, Sicily is not without hardship, conflict, and economic setbacks. It's on the rise again, a modern 21st-century Sicily emerging, but unemployment remains high, poverty persists, and the island's priorities, including economic development and tourism, are not necessarily priorities for the national government up North. This is a constant struggle.

The fact that 1.5 million people emigrated from the Island at the turn of the 20th century, my grandmother and family members among them, speaks to Sicily's struggles, Flavia said.  She talked a lot about this. Another wave left for Australia after World War II; it included my grandmother's youngest sister Paulina and her large extended family. We had the honor of meeting this branch of our family in Sydney many years ago, and experienced firsthand the generosity and loving spirit of our Sicilian heritage. The memories of that visit never diminish.

Sicily today also struggles with stereotypes, many associated with the Mafia, an ongoing battle on the part of Sicilians to wrest their beloved island from the gangsters' grip.  It helps when new industries come to the island, when new jobs are created, when politicians and judges join forces, when roads are built and expanded, when infrastructure is strengthened, when ancient towns are spruced up and ready to welcome tourists and newcomers.

Through it all, the spirit, the energy, the generosity of the Sicilian people shine through.  Strong regional pride continues. "We are proud Sicilians," a restauranteur in Naxos told us with a great laugh. He called Andy and me the "Misses Curros" after he learned our name. "Koo-row" is how he pronounced it. "Hey Misses Curros, don't leave yet, I have something for you," he boomed after we paid our check.  He came back with two shots of limoncello, a lovely lemon liquor that we downed with enthusiasm and many grazies. The soul of Sicily, stunning, shimmering, and everlasting.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Putin leaves the Donbas in Ruins

This is eastern Ukraine, the Donbas, after Putin.
 The ruined Donetsk airport.
"With much of its infrastructure destroyed or crippled, the vast majority of its industrial workplaces idle, many of its skilled workers and professionals internally displaced and in exile, and its banking and administrative systems in ruins, occupied Donbas is beset by a collapsing GDP, massive unemployment, high prices, and growing poverty. Around 50 percent of its residents are pensioners, a further number are unemployed — victims of the fact that as many as 70 percent of the occupied region’s factories and mines are not functioning." Adrian Karatnyckyand Alexander J. Motyl, "Putin changes the subject," Politico, 9 October 2015

Debaltseve, January 2015
So Putin's war in Ukraine has demolished much of Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts in eastern Ukraine, the industrial Donbas, and Stalinized and militarized Crimea in an illegal occupation.  He gave those Russian soldiers, bike gangs, special ops and mercenaries their game to play, because that's all they can do and that's all they want to do.  

Who wants to govern a wasteland with no infrastructure and a destroyed economy, inhabited by mostly pensioners and the unemployed.  

Some of Putin's soldiers--and make no mistake, Putin is the conductor of this military orchestra--are getting bored with the lack of action in Ukraine these days and are moving on to fight in Syria. Not to worry. Putin will create another war zone for them, the consequences be damned.   

Putin has moved on to Syria to support the murderous Assad with awesome airpower and naval power, including those cruise missiles that can travel 1,000 miles from the Caspian sea to targets in Syria.  I'm still amazed at that, although it doesn't always go as planned.  Think of those poor terrorist cows in northern Iran that got hit with a missile that fell short of its target. 

Jud's Sunflower, weeping.
I also remember and will never forget the Russian BUK missile that took down MH-17 in a wargame over the sunflower fields of Ukraine, for which Putin is ultimately responsible. 

Putin has blood on his hands. He is an expert at subterfuge and dissembling. He is a master at creating wastelands. 

Some folks see this as strength, as "leadership." Violence trumps peace.  The planet is an armed camp for guns and weapons of mass destruction.  

Others, myself among them, see it as weakness and lack of the commitment and brilliance required to seek diplomatic solutions. What has war ever accomplished? Shouldn't we do everything in our power to safeguard our planet, our "Common Home," as Pope Francis calls it. 

And yet there is something about human nature that guarantees war and violence will always be with us. Yes, evil exists, and all we can do is fight it. 

My brother Loren believed, and I agree with him, that as long as patriarchy and patriarchal values rule the world, this will be so.   

Friday, October 9, 2015

Another Sea, Another Region of Conflict: The Caspian

This map (Enclyclopedia Britannica) shows the countries around the Caspian Sea, a massive contemporary contested region on the world stage.  And Russia the Bear hanging over all of it.  It's an eyeopener.  I didn't realize that Russian interests in this region are historic and significant; also Persia, now Iran, and the former Soviet Socialist Republics of Kazakhstan Turkmenstan, and Azerbajan.  The region between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea also looks strategic, with its potential for transportation routes, pipelines and expanding markets. An awesome perspective. 

Seeing the geography of the Caspian Sea is mindboggling.  So is its ancient, historical, economic and geopolitical significance. It's not that far from the Black Sea, with Turkey looming large, and Syria and Iraq right there on the border. Those rugged mountains, which we hear a lot about in today's news, are the main barrier.
Where is the Caspian Sea?  The Russians are launching cruise missiles on "terrorists" sites in Syria from four of their ships in the Caspian Sea. The missile attacks support ground troops that are also being supported by Russian air power. These missiles travel 1,000 miles over Iran and Iraq to hit their targets in Syria. Incredible.  1,000 miles!  Look at the map (below left)!
Graphic look at those missiles from the Caspian. 
After their initial amazing success, about which Putin gloated, the Caspian Sea continues to be the staging ground for Russian warships firing missiles at anti-Assad forces in Syria.   But the latest round of missiles missed their mark, landing somewhere in northern Iran. Oops. So is northern Iran close to the Caspian Sea?  And why is the Caspian Sea, and not the Black Sea, say, a staging ground for launching cruise missiles?

My curiosity led to a little online research. Here are some things I learned.
* Do you know that the Caspian Sea (in Russian Kaspiyskoye More, in Persian Darya-ye Khezer) is the largest landlocked salt lake or salt sea in the world, lying to the east of the Caucasus mountains and to the west of the vast steppes of Central Asia?  It's where Southeastern Europe connects to Asia.

* Do you know the sea is bordered in the northeast by Kazakhstan, in the southeast by Turkmenistan, in the south by Iran, in the southwest by Azerbaijan, and in the northwest by Russia?  A real eyeopener this one.

* Do you know that it's name derives from the ancient Kaspi peoples who lived in the Transcaucasis to the west, plus from other tribes like Khazarsk, Khvalynsk,and Girkansk who also lived there at different times? The region goes back at least 11 million years to some of the earliest human beings on earth.  My brother Loren placed the location of Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear in this region and loved talking about its ancient and prehistoric significance. I wish Loren were here now.

* Do you know the Caspian is rich in oil and gas reserves, like the Arctic, and has similar issues about borders, access and ownership?  Although not as huge an area, the Caspian sea region is geographically more strategic than ever.  
* Do you know that 90% of the world's sturgeons, which are prehistoric fish, live in the Caspian, and the eggs, or roe, are the source of the world's best caviar, like Beluga? This makes the Caspian essential to the Russian economy, an enormous industry.  

What an incredible geopolitical region!  Today the Caspian sea and the entire region are front-page news, especially with the Syrian war, changing socio-economic dynamics, and terrorists uprisings.  But its status and future are up for grabs.  It's truly mindboggling to study these maps and realize the area's strategic economic and political importance.

Just looking at the maps, I have a better understanding of why there is enormous geopolitical jockeying taking place among the five Caspian-bordering countries. It's more pronounced now in light of Middle East instability and the subsequent recasting of many Western countries' energy policies. What are the water boundaries? Who has control over which areas and which oil and gas reserves? Where should new pipelines be built or old ones expanded? Complicating matters is the US military deployment in the Central Asian region and now Russia's direct and substantial armed intervention in the Syria conflict on behalf of Assad.

Reading about the Caspian Sea is like reading about the Arctic Circle in many ways.  Its geography, oil and gas reserves, contested political and water borders, as well as its contemporary importance in major conflicts in the Middle East and in the Baltics, encompass the major global conflicts of the 21st century going into the 22nd century.  What will become of the Caspian region?
This World Atlas map shows the major cities
around the Caspian Sea. Small islands hug the coastline around the sea,
along with the oil and gas resources that are the source of major border issues. 

130 rivers flow into the Caspian Sea, the largest being the Volga
River, the next largest the Ural River, starting way up in
Russia's Ural mountains. What long journeys these river make.
These are all important transport routes,
and there are lots of plans, contested, for canals and pipelines.   
                           I would never have guessed where this beautiful scene is.
I might have guessed the Costa Rican rain forest.
It's Iran's northern Caspian Hyrcamian mixed forests, maintained by moisture
captured by the Caspian Sea in the Alborz mountain range of Gilan, Iran! Wow!
wikimedia image and caption

From the Encyclopedia Britannica: "Scientific studies have shown that until geologically quite recent times, approximately 11 million years ago, the Caspian was linked, via the Sea of Azov, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea, to the world ocean. The Caspian is of exceptional scientific interest, because its history—particularly former fluctuations in both area and depth—offers clues to the complex geologic and climatic evolution of the region. Human-made changes, notably those resulting from the construction of dams, reservoirs, and canals on the immense Volga River system (which drains into the Caspian from the north), have affected the contemporary hydrologic balance. Caspian shipping and fisheries play an important role in the region’s economy, as does the production of petroleum and natural gas in the Caspian basin. The sea’s splendid sandy beaches also serve as health and recreation resorts."

Some interesting articles:, "Caviar and the Caspian Sea."
I would never have guessed where this beautiful scene is.
I might have guessed the Costa Rican rain forest.
It's Iran's northern Caspian Hyrcamian mixed forests, maintained by moisture
captured by the Caspian Sea in the Alborz mountain range of Gilan, Iran! Wow!
wikimedia image and caption