Wednesday 31 August 2022

On War

Okay, folks, the usual disclaimer, caveat, forwarning, foreboding and dictate: The following are the ramblings of a man with a tenuous grasp of reality, on the best of occasions. Thus, consider my musings no more than a man who has an interest in things military and, over the years, has read wide/wild and free on matters of which I have absolutely no practical experience. I am but a simple, 'Armchair Warrior' with an overactive imagination/medication. What follows is opinion and in no way should be construed as expert commentary. Consider your comments and opinions in this light. As for censure regarding my 'scholarship'. I will not hear or brook such a thing. Take from this post, what you will in the spirit of a man renowned for spouting, total and utter, bollocks. Arse.      

It has to be admitted that we are a somewhat contentious species. But we may not be the only species on the planet that actually engages in planned conflict. For instance, several ant species undertake a 'campaign' to attack other ants and destroy the 'citadel' complete/replete with resident/resplendent Queen. Our closest relatives, the pongids, specifically chimpanzees, can be particularly unpleasant. That said, over many centuries, societal pressures have shaped humans into the organised, highly efficient proponents of organised conflicts. This has not always been the case. 

Primitive humans, 12,000 years ago, lived the 'idyllic' life as hunter-gatherers. This was before our ancestors became acquainted with the joys, and fruits, of stock domestication and the cultivation of crops. The human population was low and consequently, a simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle was acceptable without conflict with other human groups practising the same mode of existence. Life within the tribal structure, by necessity dictated by the harsh mistress of survival, was highly stratified. Adult men acted in concert together to hunt prey. The larger the game taken, the better. A large animal provided the necessary protein required to maintain the family structure. Sophisticated hunting strategies focused on herd animals. Herd animals flock together for protection. But primitive hunters could utilise this tendency through tactics designed to exploit an evolutionary loophole. Thus, herding animals to a naturally enclosed area facilitates ambush and subsequent destruction by cooperating, coordinating hunters armed with javelin, spear and club. Such high protein yields were conducive to an explosion in population coupled with the development of means for meat preservation and storage in times of inevitable shortage due to seasonal fluctuations and random/unpredictable privations affecting man and prey in equal/unequal measure.

When the first wandering bands of primitive humans entered mutual violence is lost unto temporal oblivion. Reasons for conflict are also beyond extraction although reasonable scenarios may be pondered with a degree of plausibility and merit. In ecology, there is a concept called, 'Carrying Capacity'. Simply stated, the concept refers to the resources available on a unit area of land that is able to support X individuals of a particular species. In the animal world once this limit is exceeded there is a 'biological adjustment' or in common parlance: there is a degree of dying to account for the degree of disequilibrium; eventually, the adjustment is sufficient, and death, at least due to starvation, returns unto the natural carrying capacity of the environment. This is how nature works in all its feral, majestic glory- are you not in awe?      

In a situation of limited resources, strife between groups would be inevitable. The hunting tools require no modification to inflict destruction on fellow humans. The javelin and bow preclude the need to close with the 'enemy'. Even primitive, stone-age bows would be effective killers up to 50 metres. For close quarter action, stone hand axes, hafted or simply clasped, could be used to inflict disabling 'cerebral haemorrhages' on an adversary. A comment on flint tools: there is a wide misconception that flint is not particularly useful as a cutting implement. Whilst it is true that flint is easily chipped (also a helpful feature), an edge fashioned by a skilled artisan is super sharp. Indeed, in the modern context, shards of flint have been employed in delicate eye surgery. Here endeth the lesson/digression.    

Strife amongst bands of hunter-gathers would be often spontaneous events and risk-averse. The term  'risk averse' needs a little explanation. In our modern world protected by professionally trained soldiers, we have little concept of the mechanics of stone-age, conflict. Anthropological studies over the last century, focussing on 'pre-contact' groups in South-East Asia and the Amazon basin have helped to gain some perspective. Tis hard to tease out generalisations but with my characteristic, breathtaking, all-encompassing arrogance, I will do so. During contact and strife, combat is tentative. Individual warriors are very concerned with their personal safety and don't usually act in a way that we would construe as brave or bold. If the opposing warriors are of about equal 'effectiveness' (needs to be defined) casualties are often low. This is not to say that widespread killing is not an option. If one group is smaller, unprepared for battle and cannot flee, wholesale mayhem and killing are likely. Also, a similar situation can arise if a group is caught unawares and is unable to fight back. Bravery and steadfastness in battle are not something that comes naturally to our species. We have evolved to 'way up' risk in a given survival situation, and running away has always been a highly viable life and consequently evolutionary strategy. A man has to undergo rigorous training and indoctrination to become an effective soldier. Natural self-preservation instincts need to be subsumed into the unnatural, rigid and disciplined society that is a modern army. By modern army, I'm referring to armies that have existed in 'civilised' communities for the past 2,500 years. It is fair to state, that as far as Western civilisation is concerned, the Greek hoplite was the precursor and template for what followed. A template adopted/adapted by the Romans and eventually passed on to the Germanic peoples who succeeded the Romans in the West, post-collapse. I will deal with the rise of the Western way of war, defined by the concept of the set piece battle in my next post in this series of posts on 'the fundamental nature of warfare'.              

Sunday 28 August 2022

Bert and Ernie

The Boys in Happier Days

About 8 months ago we acquired a couple of rams for free, Bert and Ernie, as their owner just wanted to get rid. Otherwise, they were destined for the knacker's yard. Mrs S is a big old softy (not me, I'm tough) and became upset that these young healthy creatures were about to be discarded unto the bone gatherer. At the time, they were about a year old. We already had three alpacas residing in one of our large fields and it was no problem adding a couple of ovines; the carrying capacity of the land was not to be exceeded. The lads were promptly delivered and the alpacas watched/awaited the delivery of the new arrivals with studied/studded interest (the alpacas had metal nose rings). Once released, the new additions began to graze immediately and we left them to settle in. As we left the field, Ted the alpaca came over to say hello and promptly mounted one of our new additions. 

It needs to be emphasised that neither my wife nor I are from farming stock. Prior to moving to our current rural property our only experience of 'livestock management' was owning a succession of white, fluffy lap dogs. However, managing alpacas and sheep is relatively easy- leastways according to YouTube. After all, both types of animals are just more woolly and larger versions of ferrets, aren't they?  Both sheep and alpacas require an annual cut and treatment for worms and other potential parasites, and nowt else. Of course, my wife and grandchildren regularly feed the animals over the fence with ovine/camelidae nutritional pellets. For a handful of nuts these, usually standoffish creatures, will allow hand patting and a little unassuming human interaction.

And thus the Great cycle/circle of life continues, without abate and drama, until..... One sunny winter's morn I toddle awf to the livestock field with a song in my heart and a beer in hand. Twas after 10.00 am after all. The purpose of the visit was to administer repair work to the hut that had been erected for the animals to gain respite from the extremes of New Zealand's weather. In this instance, a panel had come down due to rain and wind and thusly my woodworking ministrations and exertions were expressly, and sorely, needed. As I was about to set to work, I espied Ernie 'resting', supine. As the day was sunny and unseasonably warm I felt little concern. I, therefore, got to work and within a short span, I had undertaken the repair. Henceforth, livestock on the property would no longer be at the mercy of the vicissitudes of New Zealand weather. My husbandry obligations had been fulfilled with skill and undoubted aplomb! Satisfied, and filled with wonder, I regarded my land with a squint-eyed, vista-encompassing, sweep. It, at this stage, I noticed that Ernie had not moved since last regarded. With understandable trepidation, I drew near. His stillness at my approach did not bode well. I sat by the still, stricken animal and cradled his head. He was with life but by a small margin. I called the vet and she arrived within a short span. After a cursory, but professional inspection, she relayed that the prognosis was terminal and that to avoid any further suffering, poor Ernie, was to be euthanised. The family gathered and spent a few minutes with our ailing friend. Afterwards, the vet administered the drug and his family stayed until he gave up his last breath.

Next day, we buried Ernie and on the following morn, we assembled and my granddaughters placed a few wildflowers upon the place of his final repose. It was then we noticed that Bert had deposited a pile of his excremental waste (is there any other?). Could this be his way of saying, 'Goodbye'? We will never know.                    


Saturday 13 August 2022

Cleopatra Mark Two

I have been known to rehash the odd post or two. Some would say I'm a lazy bugger and should be castigated accordingly. And with that sentiment, I would heartedly agree. Lazy, indolent and mayhap, a tad slothful. What can I say? Guilty as charged. This post originally appeared in c2015. Writing is hard and although I do appear to have a modicum of talent for penning complete and utter bollocks, it does not preclude a degree of lassitude.  
That said, I have also updated grammar and amended errors, sundry. Thus, this post is supposedly about said exotic bint dissolving an expensive pearl in vinegar and drinking the acidic concoction, in one. Tis enough to give, even the most robust constitution, digestive dyspepsia- is there any other?

Reminds me of an ex Girlfriend- her name was Karen

Cleopatra (b 69BC-d 30BC) has inspired writers and artists for over two thousand years. The purported Egyptian beauty, who seduced two of the most powerful men of the Roman world has fascinated and beguiled us, ever since. Cleopatra has become a byword for despotic, lush, oriental opulence and extravagance; a woman who during a banquet with her lover, the sot, Mark Antony, is said to have dissolved a priceless pearl in vinegar and drank it. So what is the truth and after all this time, and should we care?

The first thing to note is that Cleopatra was not Egyptian, but a Macedonian belonging to the Macedonian dynasty that took control of Egypt after the death of the great general of antiquity, Alexander the Great (d 323BC). Macedonians: A load of Highland ruffians that ruled the world, because they could. The rulers spoke Greek and didn't even bother to learn the native Egyptian language, although Cleopatra apparently made the effort, as she did with other barbarian tongues. She became ruler of Egypt after the death of her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, at 18 (51BC). To legitimise her rule she married her younger brother, aged 12, at the time- don't ask.

As regards her supposed beauty, let us consult the ancient writers for their considered opinion of her said pulchritude: “For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased…”

Plutarch's Life of Antony 

The only other evidence we have is her depiction on coins and sculptured busts. Allowing for a degree of stylisation, especially in the Greek renditions, a modest conclusion can be made. By the way, the Roman depictions are considered more realistic as befits this most practical and bucolic of peoples. On the available evidence it seems she was no ravishing beauty in the mould of Elizabeth Taylor, nor was she a hideous hag. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Her greatest attributes, lay in her charm, intelligence and accomplishments, which indeed, were great. How could it be otherwise?

We are on less firm ground when we come to the story of the pearl. Supposedly, Cleopatra bet Mark Antony that she could serve a meal costing 10 million sesterces. This would translate to about 30 million US dollars at today’s rates. Obviously, Mark Antony was intrigued (probably drunk) and so he accepted the bet. The next day she set before Antony an extravagant banquet. He was impressed but pointed out that the meal came nowhere near 10 million sesterces. Cleopatra smiled and produced a glass of vinegar into which she placed one of her large and incredibly expensive pearl earrings. The pearl fizzed in the vinegar and promptly dissolved. With a wicked gleam in her eye, Cleopatra drained the drink in one. All at the banquet agreed, that she had won the bet.   

The account appears in the writings of a Roman author, Pliny the Elder, in 77AD. We should be wary of its veracity for several reasons: Firstly it was written many years after the alleged event;  further, it was written by an enemy who had no love for Cleopatra and it has all the hallmarks of a myth. The ancients loved a 'rollicking' good story, just as we do today, and were not immune to subverting the facts if it suited. The story also suited Roman propaganda in which Cleopatra is suitably depicted as a
luxuriant despotic ruler- the antithesis of tough, rustic, stolid, georgic, Rome.

There should always be a kernel of truth in a good (and plausible?) 'tall story'. One part of the story can be tested today. Is it possible to dissolve a pearl in vinegar? The essence and nature of pearls and vinegar have not changed in two thousand years. Pearls will dissolve in vinegar but not in the way described by Pliny. A pearl, and especially a large pearl, will not dissolve within a very short time- we are looking at days. And remember, Cleopatra's pearl was very large. Therefore, the story could not have occurred exactly as described. The ancients should have got their facts right, we are talking about posterity, after all. This doesn't mean it didn't happen; a few modifications are required. If the pearl was crushed into a fine powder beforehand, then it would be possible.

Having established that at least one part of the original story can't be true, it casts a modicum amount of doubt, over the rest of the story. The story, with reservations, is wholly consistent with what we know about Cleopatra herself. The great lady was wealthy, a ruler in the grand ancient tradition and flaunted her power and privilege with extravagant abandon.       

I suppose, in the last analysis, we should revel in a tale well told and should not be asking penetrating and prosaic questions. Fiction can be intoxicating. After all, who questions whether Shakespeare's, 'Antony and Cleopatra' is a tale of real history? Tis a breathtaking, tragic, and beautifully narrated story framed in lilting prose that, on occasion, inflames the senses. Apparently, it can make grown men cry (not me though, I'm tough).

Historically, Cleopatra was an important character, although ultimately doomed. She played a fine game as only an intelligent ruler could in the face of subjugation to a greater power. She recognised the Roman Empire for what it was. Not sophisticated, politically, or culturally. However, it possessed the only two characteristics that really matter in the world's great arena; political stability (*see comment, below) and a large and well-trained military force. Nothing else really matters, at least from the grand geopolitical perspective. Expanding on this analysis, it is well to consider that the subjugator, the Roman Empire, when its time came, fell more to internal enemies than those without. Modern Western powers should take note.     

*As I'm sure you are aware, I'm not a great one for digression, but I thought it necessary to introduce a caveat on Rome's 'political stability', before I receive censure. The period in which I write is a time of great political upheaval for Rome. Prior to this era, Rome experienced relatively stable political conditions under the Republic, however, it did suffer from periods of social tumult. Caesar introduced a form of stability that pleased no one but himself. After his death, the Roman world descended into civil war. And with interludes, real peace and tranquillity (at least for the Romans) did not descend until the coming of the first Roman Emperor, Octavian. The rest is history- go read.   

Gratuitous photo of da missus and grand fruit

Thursday 11 August 2022

War Horse- In the Beginning

British  Warriors Prior To Annihilation    

 Tis time to consider a post with a military flavour. Don't be angry, be amazed!

There can be no doubt that the horse has played a significant role, in war, since the 2nd millennium BC up until the Great War. Modern artillery, the bolt action rifle, the machine gun, and wretched flesh-ripping barbwire doomed the horse to the glue factory, circa 1914-1916. Sadly, for combatants of the First Great War, sentiment at the beginning of the conflict overcame reality. Thus is the raw emotional attachment of man and horse. A combination able to transcend reality until reality forced acquiescence on reluctant men- the horse had no say in the matter. Is there no more pitiful sight of seeing broken, once noble beasts (of both species)  littering the desecrated, shattered land of the post-apocalyptic battlefield?

When man first contemplated the horse, about 5,000 years ago there was no thought of using the beast to pull a cart (what's a cart?) or support the weight of a man. The horse of the time was a poor specimen without anatomical merit. The folk of prehistory were at the stage where domestication of tractable stock was becoming a reality. The stout oxen replaced the stout farmer at the plough. However, the ovine character and physiognomy prevented this beast of burden to progress as a useful creature for war, except in the field of logistics.     

Back to the primitive horse. Consider the modern variety. In our fields, we see the stout, round-bellied pony. In the right hands, this beautiful creature is happy to accept the weight of its beloved owner. Also, contemplate the thoroughbred. A pampered and expensive equine of intense beauty and restrained strength. A horse for Kings and Sheiks. A horse with a lineage to rival the descendants of King David and demanding a King's ransom. But it wasn't always so.

The horse that was to make such an impact on warfare went through a long process before it became the formidable warhorse that bestrode battlefields, unchallenged, throughout millennia. The horse available to folk of prehistory was unsuitable for use as a beast of burden and became another provider of protein. The ancestor of the modern horse was hunted unto oblivion by the Amerindians that crossed into the Americas at the end of the last ice age. The horse species available to stone-age man was much shorter than modern breeds and lacked the strength/stamina to bear a man's weight. By selective breeding, humans of prehistory used sound empirical observation and native intelligence to improve and modify suitable stock: first to enable domestication and secondly, to unlock desirable physical characteristics. Thus, it seems that primitive man was an evolutionary geneticist, thousands of years before Darwin put the fundamental principles on a sound theoretical footing. Not all species exhibit the necessary genetic plasticity. For instance, the humble onager and donkey have resisted all attempts to breed a strong-shouldered animal capable of bearing the burden of a man. Of course, the animal can be ridden upon the stout hind haunches but this mode of riding does not allow for fine control of the beast. Furthermore, these animals are notoriously stubborn and intractable to command if they so desire. No amount of breeding will produce an animal with a consistent and compliant/pliant disposition in these obdurate creatures.     

On the route to true cavalry, there was a necessary interlude. As the selective process was ongoing in the third millennium, and before the horse became robust enough to carry a rider in the forward 'control', position, the horse became harnessed for war, by being harnessed to the war chariot. The two-wheeled chariot, no more than 75lbs, was married to two horses. This was the first true 'vehicle' for war. The stamina and speed of the horse gave man a new advantage in the game of war. This union enabled the skilled charioteer, given suitable terrain, to speed across the land at an unprecedented  20 mph. 

The appearance of this new weapon on the primitive battlefield not only conveyed an immense tactical edge but also gave forth a terrifying psychological advantage akin to the German reaction when confronted by the British tank on the Somme in September 1916. It also resulted in the creation of a unique societal warrior elite, a trend that continued unhindered with the development of calvary proper.

By 1700 BC the perfection of the light chariot wedded to the short but powerful composite bow, produced a union in heaven or hell, depending on whether you were the protagonist or recipient. Once the horse became strong enough in the shoulder to carry a man, the chariot-borne warrior became obsolete except for isolated barbarian folk. The fierce, woad bestrewn, often naked warriors of Britain, were too primitive to have realised that the chariot warfare they practised was considered antiquated by their more civilised continental neighbours-  certainly, the Romans were mightily unimpressed. 

By the middle of the second millennium BC, chariot folk, descended unto the rich civilised lands of Mesopotamia and wreaked havoc amongst their more refined neighbours. Foot soldiers of the time, could not counter the combination of fleet chariots and the awesome majesty of the composite bow. Woe to the static warrior!

The dominance of chariot warfare was everywhere short-lived.  Once the horse had become selected to bear a man's weight upon its withers, the manoeuvrability afforded by this critical development doomed the chariot to be but a footnote in the history of war. The impact of the horsed warrior, in all its manifest guises, upon the battlefield, and by extension history, will become the focus of my next post...... Do not despair gentle reader! I have already embarked upon this critical composition that will grace this esteemed blog with timely abandon. Arse.