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Alfred Dreyfus, Applied History, and National Aesthetician Day

Everybody knows the story of Alfred Dreyfus. On 15 October 1894, Captain Dreyfus was arrested for treason. He was later convicted, cashiered, condemned and sent to Devil’s Island. Later exonerated, Dreyfus was returned to France, reinstated, promoted, and served well in the French Army through WWI and retired a Lieutenant Colonel. The entire case was a put-up job from beginning to end that tore French society to shreds with its two contentious factions of Catholic anti-Dreyfusards, and anti-clerical Dreyfusards lined up on opposite sides lusting after each other’s chitlins. There were also deep streams of anti-Semitism running through the entire affair. A fellow officer named Esterhazy was suspected of the treason that Dreyfus was charged with, but he was quickly acquitted.

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Degradation of Dreyfus, Wiki Commons

Trouble is, there has never been any evidence that anyone committed any of the crimes that anyone was ever charged with, let alone convicted of. The torn-up note that was pivotal in the Dreyfus trials contained nothing in the way of secrets, and the Germans never saw it. More critical, searches of postwar German files yielded no traffic of the sort that French intelligence was convinced was passed to them. But by then the whole affair had been crushed under the tread of the millions of Frenchmen killed in WWI, and no one was interested in it anymore.

Yet…those same conclusions are still jumped to–there had to be something to it or all that would have been wasted effort…right? Well, not necessarily.

Remember Watergate? The scandal over the failed Democratic National Committee office break-in in 1972? Tell us…what information did who get off those bugs that were so important that they had no role whatsoever in bringing down a president? Yeah, crickets. Not that the third-rate burglary didn’t happen because it did, but, to what end? Sure, trials and scandals and all that. But Nixon wasn’t brought down by Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate, but by improper campaign donations from a completely different direction. In the case of Dreyfus, it was the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871, the retreat of Church influence on French affairs, and anti-Semitism. In the case of Nixon, it was the end of the Vietnam War without apparent success, the rise of a notorious California politician over the supposedly humble former Minnesota shopkeeper, and rampant inflation.

The importance of applied history in both contexts is that external factors often exaggerate and inflame situations way out of proportion to their actual causes and effects. Applied history, however, has two crucial problems. The first is that using history to any contemporary situation is to decide that the historical situation is similar, which most scholars simply cannot do. History now is so politicized that applying, say, the Dreyfus affair, to the current “Russian collusion” investigation would mean that the same result is inevitable, which would make anyone suggesting such a thing a Trumpist and reason for a cavity search for a MAGA hat. Just not going to happen.

Second, applying historical lessons would mean that someone would have to agree on just what the past teaches. OK, but if the applied lesson doesn’t contain elements of race, sex, gender identity, ethnicity, sexual proclivity, nationality…well, you get the idea. Academic history today is an echo chamber of rehashed tropes and slogans that stand alone, on their own, and is often so specialized that identifying one story with another is impractical.


National Aesthetician Day began in 2016, created by COSMEDIX, a high-end beauty supply company (which is, after all, redundant given that all such firms are pretty pricey). The lovely up top is posing for a health care provider, who also cares for skin, which is what aestheticians do, too. But all those who you will find doing these ads and performing these miracles of beauty transformation are capitalizing on the desire for people to look desirable, clean, pretty–like the pictures.

https://www.pinterest.com/vintageaesthie/the-vintage-aesthetician/?lp=true
Listen to the voice of experience…

There’s a reason why we see the same faces in the ads all the time–good skin. The models in the pictures have it, most people don’t. Most skin is in the 80% of the middle with blotches here and lumps there that can be improved but not perfected by spending a large lump of money on some costly products and treatments. The bottom 10% won’t get better without medical intervention, and maybe not then; the top 10% barely need the products and services the aestheticians peddle.

Most of us are subject to the Swimmer’s Body Delusion. Swimmers don’t look the way they do because they swim: they can swim as well as they do because their bodies are genetically built for the rigors of movement and cold, oxygen depletion and exhausting exercise. Aestheticians use this to convince potential customers that they, too, can look like the models in their brochures. Sorry, but most won’t. They may look like better versions of themselves, but going through all of that believing that you’re going to be transformed into the new Giselle Whoever is pretty much a waste.

Come by next week, folks.

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Alvin York, Confirmation Bias, and American Touch Tag Day

Alvin York was nearly thirty when he was drafted in 1917 and had recently joined a fundamentalist Christian sect that forbade fighting, among other things. But drafted he was. As a marksman of great skill, it was thought odd that he had no stomach for battle, but he did reluctantly agree.

As a member of Company G (3rd Battalion), 328th Infantry Regiment in the 82nd Division, Corporal York’s first taste of combat was in the Meuse-Argonne sector, where his seventeen-man patrol got into a confused firefight behind enemy lines on 8 October 1918 and captured an unclear number of Germans: this late in the war, even the elite Prussian Guards were giving up. But a German machine gun tried to compel their comrades to fight again, and York and three comrades eventually silenced the gun, killing 25 in the process. York never claimed to have accounted for more than nine.

Not what you got from the movie, is it?

But America needed a hero, and the beleaguered American Army in France needed one even more. While the survivors of his patrol did capture over a hundred Germans, it is important to remember that by then most of the German Army had been on less than a thousand calories a day for nearly two years. Much of Germany was starving; the fleet was in mutiny; the cities were crumbling from lack of labor. While York and his companions were indeed heroes, he never thought as much of the Medal of Honor that hung around his neck as everyone else did.

http://www.worldwar1.com/heritage/sgtayork.htm
Alvin York (right) and the then-Governor of Tennessee Prentiss Cooper

York spurned the role of hero and icon after the war, and by the 1930s was preaching from the isolationist pulpit with Charles Lindbergh, but Hollywood change his mind. While making and promoting the movie (that he wanted to make to raise money for a bible school) that made him even more famous, he became a preparedness spokesman. The film, Howard Hawk’s 1941 Sergeant York, was based on a 1928 novel Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary which contains excerpts of  York’s diary and greatly exaggerated other contents. It was good enough to win Gary Cooper, who played York, an Academy Award in 1942 for best actor.

Audiences today see the film as a feel-good flag-waver, entertaining enough for a little over an hour once or twice, but after that just old black-and-white hokum. While this purely personal assessment may be just that, the Hollywood folks–and York–in 1940 were after a lot more. They were looking at the ashes of the French Army that had been torn apart by the Germans in less than a month, and at the outnumbered and outclassed British, who barely escaped total annihilation by running back to England, which by then was under aerial siege. The US Army, then smaller than that of Uruguay, was woefully unprepared, and Hollywood was willing to work with the Army and York to make a hokey, black-and-white film with the bankable but down-home Gary Cooper in the lead to get a peacetime draft passed in Congress.

The tactic worked mostly because they used confirmation bias–the tendency for an observer to like something already believed in. The wartime myth of York’s single-handed exploit in the Argonne was played up not just to make the film more exciting and York’s role more central, but to make the down-home country boy who never handled a smokeless powder firearm before he was drafted more approachable by typical audiences and future bond-buyers, and thus more believable. That York never personally promoted the film is usually ignored; that he never saw it is possible.

But it is also irrelevant.

Many consumers of history are the victims of confirmation bias, as they usually enjoy and agree with the works that confirm what they already think they know. Yes, we’re building up to another plug for Why the Samurai Lost Japanbut that’s what this blog is for–selling JDBCOM.COM books. Japan attacked the US, British Commonwealth, and the Netherlands in 1941, and yes it was because the West had cut off their oil and other resources because of their war in China. But, why was Japan so interested in China? The West had warned Japan time and again about their military adventures in East Asia. Why, finally, did the showdown come just as the Germans were chewing up the Soviets in the summer of 1941?

It wasn’t as coincidental as it looks.

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Cover for “Why the Samurai Lost Japan”

Why the Samurai Lost Japan explores this and many other issues. While researching the book, my co-author and I found a great deal of confirmation bias in the sources, some of which nearly parrot themselves and each other with their insistence on Japan’s arrogance (but why), military prowess (but failed to defeat the Chinese in four years), and technological sophistication (but had to import most of its machine tools). While the terrific storm of American military might fought its way across the Pacific from the ashes of Pearl Harbor (where only three warships were permanently lost), the tenacious Japanese fought tooth-and-nail in defense of their far-flung empire (which was so porous US submarines were ranging off the Japanese coast by mid-1942).

But, what a war, anyway, huh?

Our subtitle gives a little better hint at what to expect: A Study of Miscalculation and Folly. Expect to see it in December.


Today is American National Touch Tag Day for reasons lost in posterity. In the Great Lakes it still might be warm enough for these girls to be playing Touch And Go (didn’t know it just might be an acronym, did you? Neither does Snopes, but what do they know?) in their summer dresses, but it likely isn’t. Still, when was the last time you did that, ran around in the sun, giggling with whoever you can catch? Yeah, me neither.

http://wkdq.com/did-you-know-what-the-game-of-tag-stands-for/
Remember? Yeah, me neither.

The game of Tag is, was and has been an innocent enough activity,  but the Fun Police have been criticizing it lately for encouraging bullying, harassment, reckless running, unwanted touches (which is the point), and predatory behavior.  It is banned in some schools in the US, but so are cellular phones and guns for all the good that’s done.

Defy authority and start up a game of tag. Have some outrageous fun while running and touching friends. Show the Fun Police what you’re made of.

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William Boeing, Popular History and National Hair Day

Gonna try something different this month. Bear with me.

William Boeing, the founder of the Boeing Aircraft Company and United Airlines, was born on this day in 1881 to well-to-do parents in Detroit, Michigan. At an early age, he went into the lumber business in the American Northwest, becoming fascinated with aviation after seeing an airplane demonstration in 1909. He took flying lessons from Glenn Martin and bought a Martin TA floatplane. When it was damaged, Boeing decided to build a better one himself.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Boeing_B%26W.jpg
Boeing B&W

The outcome of that was the Boeing B&W or Model 1, named for the co-designers Boeing himself and George Westervelt. There were two built–the aircraft above is a replica. The two units that were made were offered to the US Navy but eventually sold to New Zealand. Soon afterward, the US Navy ordered fifty Boeing Model C training seaplanes to prepare pilots for WWI, Boeing’s first real financial success.

After WWI, Boeing built airmail aircraft, fighters, seaplanes, and flying boats, producing the first aircraft intended for passengers, the Boeing 80 in 1928, followed by the 247 in 1933, recognizable as the first “modern” airliner.

As the firm grew, Boeing expanded his reach into commercial airline routes, eventually founding what would become United Airlines. That ended in 1934 when Congress compelled all aircraft manufacturers to divest themselves of their interest in airmail routes and airlines. Boeing himself backed away from the day-to-day business by 1937, exploiting a growing interest in horses.

Personally, popular history would excoriate Boeing for monopolistic practices (about which they would be right…sort of) and for racist attitudes for founding some communities north of Seattle that had segregationist covenants. These were fairly typical of the time, but contemporary historians also dismiss this explanation because, well, because.

Popular history also holds that Boeing’s business affiliation with the military made him a war-monger. That his firm built the B-29 Superfortress that would be used to firebomb Japan and deliver the atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki only proves the case. So there.

While Walter Boeing had nothing to do with either starting the war or personally with the development of the B-29 or the atomic bomb, he gets at least part of the blame for them in some circles. Boeing died 28 September 1956, long before anyone thought to blame him personally for the tools of war and industry his company provided.

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Cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan

The illustration over on the left is the cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan which is now in its final stages and is scheduled to be available by the end of the year. The subtitle, A Study of Miscalculation and Folly, is a not particularly glib attempt to summarize our conclusions.

Popular history and even academic history has been selling one of two versions of Japan in WWII. The first is what could be called a triumphalist version of the United States clawing their way back from the smoke and ruins of Pearl Harbor to dictating a just peace to a thoroughly prostrated Japan after whipping them like a poor relation.

The second is more nuanced but still ends the same way. Some popular historians and a few academics have questioned the “true” motives for the American response to the initial Japanese attacks. Some have even wondered out loud if there hadn’t been some very deep race-based motives for “pushing” Japan to war with the sanctions that started in 1933 and concluded in 1941. After all, at least one American naval officer after the Pearl Harbor attacks publicly stated that he wanted to exterminate all Japanese.

Did race play a part? Unlikely. Though John Dower in War Without Mercy tries to sell this message, frankly he does not connect the dots between attitudes and behavior on the part of either the West or the Japanese. The Japanese were as convinced of the superiority of their race as were the Germans, though they didn’t stoop to genocide the same way. The West, as suspicious of other races as other races were of them, was in no way particularly “racist” about how their war was fought against any of their enemies.

The goals of Japan for their conflict against the West in 1941 were both simple and complex. They earnestly expected an easy victory, piggybacking on Germany’s anticipated defeat of the Soviet Union. At the same time, they expected Asia to follow their “natural” leadership in resisting further encroachments into their territories.

Why the Samurai Lost Japan isn’t a popular history in the sense that it reads in the “USA triumphant” vein or in the “Japan was a victim of western capitalist/racist greed.” It is a study of why a supposedly defunct subgroup of Japanese society reached across the Pacific to engage in a trans-oceanic war with the leading industrial power of the time, expecting to succeed in their goals–but not “win” the war in the conventional sense. It is a study of miscalculation and folly on the part of not only Japan but of nearly everyone else that affected the samurai’s fateful decision to go to war. Look for it in December.


The lovely lass above is celebrating National Hair Day, proclaimed in 2017 by the National Day Calendar at the behest of NuMe, a purveyor of hair care products. I personally don’t get it (except to clean it out of the tub drain) but I don’t have to.

Hair, as we know it, is endemic to human society, as it is to all mammals–in fact, it helps define us, in part.

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Really?

Define us…how? Is this definition or is this just showing off? But then there…this…which is…what?

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Huh?

Suffice it to say I’m glad I don’t have to clean your drains. My hair…as you may appreciate, I don’t have that much more than I did here…

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Your author, about age 2 or so.

Keep your cards and letters coming in, folks.

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Pearl Harbor Planning and National Punctuation Day

Ah, late September in the Great Lakes…the colors, the light frost, the leaves in the gutters, the beds to clean up, the garage to get ready for snow…yeah, great. At least that air conditioning compressor isn’t running non-stop.

On 24 September 1541 Theophrastus von Hohenheim, better known to history as Paracelsus, died in Salzburg. Generally thought of as the father of toxicology, this physician, astrologer, and alchemist emphasized the value of observation in addition to received wisdom in the practice of medicine, a true pioneer in a field full of pioneers in the Renniassance. This date in 1869 is known to history at Black Friday when the “gold ring” of Jay Gould and James Fisk tried to corner the market on gold on the New York Gold Exchange. The speculators tried to advantage of bits of inside information on US government gold sales which backfired, triggering increased government species sales rather than decreased, cratering the prices and causing a panic on Wall Street. And on 25 September 1864, the Warren Commission’s final report on the assassination of President Kennedy was presented to President Johnson and made public three days later. Because of the nature of the Kennedy assassination and the tenor of the times, the conclusions–that Oswald acted alone in the killing of the president, and that Ruby acted alone to kill Oswald–have always been controversial. Today is also National Cherries Jubilee Day (no one knows why just go with it) and Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving (the Schwenkfelders are a small Protestant sect dating from the Reformation; they have celebrated their deliverance to Philadelphia since 1733). But today we talk about hasty-yet-brilliant-in-their-way plans, and about ending sentences.

Onishi Takijiro had been studying feasibility without specific information about the November 1940 Fleet Air Arm attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, which didn’t reach Japan until early 1942.

On this day in 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) began their preliminary research for a proposed attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. Most readers would take careful note that this was only 74 days–two months and change–before the attack took place. While the general offensive against the West was authorized on 2 July, the Pearl Harbor operation was something of a question mark. While Genda Minoru’s tactical air attack plan dated from February 1941, Onishi Takijiro had been studying the feasibility since November 1940–albeit without specific information about the November 1940 Fleet Air Arm attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, which didn’t reach Japan until early 1942.

Yamamoto Isoroku managed to sell it to his fellow admirals, but many of them had little faith in the power of aircraft to sink maneuvering warships at sea: before December 1941, it had never been done. 

The issue was that the IJN was entirely unprepared for such an attack. Since the 1920s, the entire fleet had been built around a mid-ocean ambush of the US Pacific Fleet as it made its way across the ocean. Though discredited for years, the plan and doctrine had its adherents throughout the halls of Japanese power. Yamamoto Isoroku, the head of the Combined Fleet, had the Pearl Harbor strike in his head and managed to sell it to his fellow admirals, but many of them had little faith in the power of aircraft to sink maneuvering warships at sea: before December 1941, it had never been done.

There was no master switch to throw that could shift a generation’s worth of planning, doctrine, training and ship design from a mid-ocean ambush to throwing a force of projection across a third of the Earth’s surface.

So the entire fleet had to be retrained, reallocated, and reorganized for what it was to do in December 1941, and that took a great deal of time. More, the resources for such a long-distance air strike had to be gathered, and the rest of the fleet had to be re-purposed to support the Imperial Japanese Army’s (IIA) attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines. There was no master switch to throw that could shift a generation’s worth of planning, doctrine, training and ship design from a mid-ocean ambush to throwing a force of projection across a third of the Earth’s surface.

…the brilliantly-executed air attacks that Sunday morning were primarily meant to destroy the key elements of the Pacific Fleet, and that was about the only thing they could have done.

Nonetheless, it was done, and starting in September the actual nature of the area was carefully studied and scrutinized. The primary targets were to be the American aircraft carriers–failing that, there were no primaries. Though much ink has been spilled since 1941 on the value of hitting the fuel storage tanks and workshops–the supposed targets of the never-launched IJN third strike on 7 December 1941–it is difficult to assess what damage could have been done to them. First, it is difficult at best and impossible at worst to tell the difference between a warehouse and an engine workshop from an aircraft traveling at 300 plus miles an hour while someone is shooting at you. Thus, target identification was problematic. Second, attacking fuel oil bunkers with the bombs available to single-engined aircraft primarily intended to sink ships might cause some damage, but anything close to total or catastrophic was unlikely. Third, while single-engined planes might have damaged the drydocks and other facilities with their bombs, these are much smaller targets than ships, and thus hitting them hard enough to cause lasting damage would have been lucky at best. For these reasons, the brilliantly-executed air attacks that Sunday morning were primarily meant to destroy the critical elements of the Pacific Fleet, and that was about the only thing they could have done.

The plans that were undertaken in September 1941 were drawn up with hope as a planning tool: the hope was that the US would be cowed to the negotiating table by a series of lightning attacks. As others have learned to their peril, hope is an inferior contingency plan. Our book, Why the Samurai Lost Japan, published at the end of this year, covers this and many other aspects of the Pacific War.


Now, no one in their right minds really knows anything about National Punctuation Day, and absolutely no one would actually found such a thing let alone build a website around it, right? Well, turns out that’s wrong. Someone did. A fella named Jeff Rubin founded National Punctuation Day and made a website. He’s the publisher of a newsletter called The Exclamation Point that goes on and on about punctuation. As my editor and verbal sparring partner Frank will tell you, I’m personally a punctuation minimalist. I eschew as many commas as I can get away with, but that also tends to lead to long sentences that he has to break up in our laborious editing process for everything but this here blog. But he bears with me as much as I believe any friend of…well, Clinton had just been elected when we met. Leave it at that.

Anyway, today is National Punctuation Day, and if you write anything at all today (recent research indicates that most people actually write less than a thousand words a day), please pay attention to what you’re doing. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynn Truss is an excellent and easy-to-read guideline much more approachable than most other guides. And, as a general rule, there are certain parts of punctuation that not only baffle the “experts” but are not published anywhere because English is simply too flexible. There are rules, but not everyone agrees on all of them.

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Antietam and National Monte Cristo Day

Mid-September and the fall cleanup should be well underway in the Great Lakes. The air conditioner shouldn’t run most nights by now, and the leaves here should be turning. Great time of year.

On 17 September 1787, the US Constitution was adopted by the Congress that, at that time, existed only by habit and the Articles of Confederation. The new document would replace the body that created it. Interesting juxtaposition. And on this day in 1944, Operation Market-Garden would commence with a mass drop of nearly 20,000 paratroopers on three large areas in Holland to be joined together by an armored column. Nice in theory, but the disaster came when the Germans rallied faster than anyone expected and put up a stiff defense against the ground attack with a front ten yards wide by five miles long. And on 17 September 1996, Spiro Agnew, once Vice-President under Richard Nixon and once Governor of Maryland, died in Berlin, Maryland. Agnew resigned as vice president when he pled guilty to tax evasion in October 1973, less than a year before his boss would. Today is also Apple Dumpling Day because someone said so and they haven’t changed their minds. But today we’re going to talk about bloodletting and sandwiches.

While the Confederates under Robert E. Lee couldn’t afford too many stand-up fights, the Union under McClellan could, but just didn’t like to.

By the summer of 1862, the American Civil War in the east–the 90 miles between the two opposing capitals–was in a sort of stasis mostly imposed by two stale realities: the timidity of George McClellan and the relative poverty of the Confederate armies. While the Confederates could win battles, they couldn’t win and hold territory. While the Union armies could hold turf–and was doing just that in the west–the Army of the Potomac was commanded by a brilliant administrator who hated the idea that his troops had to fight. While the Confederates under Robert E. Lee couldn’t afford too many stand-up fights, the Union under McClellan could, but just didn’t like to.

Civil War Trust
Maryland Campaign

To break this stalemate before another winter in camp, Lee conceived a plan to bring McClellan’s army to battle on northern soil. There Lee would defeat the Union. This would demoralize the Union in time to influence the mid-term Congressional elections, destabilize Lincoln and the radical Republicans and bring the conflict to a negotiated conclusion, leaving The South (TM) to go on its merry way. All this depended on Lee’s ability to get the Army of the Potomac to fight somewhere outside Virginia and defeat it. Thus was born the Maryland Campaign of 1862.

Only distance and logistics stopped the Federals from overrunning the Confederacy altogether.

Conceptually it was something of a hail-Mary. Everything depended on everything else going in the Confederacy’s favor, something that had not really happened yet in the war. While the Manassas campaign of 1862 was something of a Federal rout, the Confederates lacked the wherewithal to capitalize on Federal disorganization.  Even if the Confederacy were victorious in the east, elsewhere the Union armies were moving more or less unencumbered by Confederate forces. Only distance and logistics stopped the Federals from overrunning the Confederacy altogether.

There they waited for the morning when McClellan’s force–over twice Lee’s strength–would surely crush the Army of Northern Virginia.

But Lee launched his campaign on 3 September 1862 with the best of intentions, fighting a minor battle in the mountain passes where McClellan had stolen a march on Lee and cut him off. After two weeks of marching and fighting, Lee’s depleted army came to rest near Sharpsburg, Maryland on the evening of 16 September, knowing that the Army of the Potomac was just across the small tributary of the Potomac called Antietam Creek. There they waited for the morning when McClellan’s force–over twice Lee’s strength–would surely crush the Army of Northern Virginia.

While Lee knew that the big enemy army was badly handled, he also knew that even a badly handled but huge force could simply run over his weakened force in an afternoon.

That’s one version. Another is that Lee knew full well how timid McClellan was, and also knew that concerted action by corps commanders was not a Union strength. Lee almost certainly had taken the measure of McClellan many times and found him wanting as a field commander. While the Army of the Potomac was large, it was not as destructive as all that. While Lee knew that the big enemy army was poorly handled, he also knew that even a badly-handled but colossal force could run over his weakened host in an afternoon.

The 22,000 plus casualties incurred had mostly been in the morning, and the fighting slowed to a smoke-choked crawl by noon: McClellan might have destroyed Lee then and there.

The battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg has been described by better scribes than I so I won’t duplicate those efforts or paraphrase from them. The critical thing to remember about the bloodletting of 17 September at the bridge or the wheat field or the cornfield or anywhere else is that it was an uncoordinated mess that actually used less than 40% of the available Union forces. By the time McClellan stopped fighting not only was Lee pretty well beaten but it was just late afternoon, with as much as another three hours of daylight left. The 22,000 plus casualties incurred had mostly been in the morning, and the fighting slowed to a smoke-choked crawl by noon: McClellan might have destroyed Lee then and there.

…rid of McClellan, the Army of the Potomac could fight on its own terms.  

But he didn’t. He liked having his army, not fighting it. The result was a tactical draw, but a partial Federal victory for having turned Lee back to Virginia again. But it disgusted the Federal commanders enough to prompt McClellan’s replacement, and the battle itself affected the mid-term elections, not at all: rid of McClellan, the Army of the Potomac could fight on its own terms.


And there’s National Monte Cristo Day, originated in 2015 by Bennigan’s, one of many Irish-pub-themed restaurant chains struggling just like the rest of them in the face of me-too competition. A Monte Cristo is a pan- or deep-fried ham and cheese sandwich, a variation of the French croque-monsieur, sometimes called a French Sandwich, a Toasted Ham Sandwich, or a French Toasted Cheese Sandwich. A Monte Cristo is typically savory rather than sweet. It is usually dipped in egg batter. Variations may include sliced turkey and different types of cheese. It can be served grilled or open-faced and heated under a grill or broiler. It can also be sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with jam or preserves.

Eh, whatever. Typically I won’t get that elaborate about sandwiches: slice it up raw, save the time and energy and put it on a plate or a napkin, all the same to me. Or just hand it to me. Powdered sugar? Jam or Preserves? What for? It’s a ham sandwich, for all love.

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Edmond O’Brian and National TV Dinner Day

The second week in September, and the weather should be cooling off in the Great Lakes by now. Could even spend a few days with the windows open just to get some air in the building, as long as the neighbors keep it down.

10 September, a momentous day in China (before they knew it was even September) in 210 BC, when Qin Shi Huang died; this was the founder of the Qin dynasty and first emperor of a unified state that could be called China. It was he who brought the warring states under central control and secured most of modern China.  On this day in 1897 in London was the first drunk driving arrest–gotta wonder what that field sobriety test looked like. George Smith, a 25-year-old London cab driver, was arrested after ramming a building; he pled guilty and paid a 25 shilling fine.  Finally, on 10 September 1977, the guillotine was last used in public. Hamida Djandoubi was a Tunisian-born farm laborer who kidnapped and murdered his former girlfriend in 1972. He was convicted and sentenced to death, the last time the guillotine was used in public, and the last capital sentence to be carried out in the European Union. Today is also National Swap Ideas Day, dreamed up by Robert L. Birch (no, really). But today we talk about the hardest working man in Hollywood, and convenience under tin foil.

His first film contract with RKO brought him in contact with Eve Arden and Deanna Durbin at Universal, but his first really big part was with James Cagney in White Heat (1949).

Eamon Joseph O’Brien was born on 10 September 1915 in Brooklyn, New York, the last of seven children. He did street magic as a child and learned the acting trade early in his life, at the feet of Harry Houdini and Sanford Meisner. His fellow students included Lillian Gish and Burgess Meridith in summer stock and Shakespeare road shows.  His first film contract with RKO brought him in contact with Eve Arden and Deanna Durbin at Universal, but his first really big part was with James Cagney in White Heat (1949).

220px-EdmondOBrien. Wiki Commons
Edmund O’Brien as Frank Bigelow in “DOA” (1950)

But his best-known role was in DOA (1950), where O’Brien played a notary public who spent the last hours of his life investigating his own murder. That got him enough notoriety to land a role in The Barefoot Contessa (1954) as Oscar Muldoon, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe. He would be nominated for the same awards for his role as a boozing senator in Seven Days in May (1964), winning the Golden Globe and another Oscar nomination. He also won the Western Heritage Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture for his role as yet-another lush in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962). As many awards as O’Brien won, however, did not compensate for his health challenges: his weight swung drastically, and he suffered from arthritis in his hips.

As an independent actor, O’Brien showed a business acumen and creative talent all his own, earning him the moniker “the hardest working man in Hollywood.”

O’Brien also landed leading roles, notably in Sheild for Murder (1954), 1984 and A Cry in the Night (1956).  But he’s undoubtedly best known for his characters, which he always thought were more natural to play than lead because an actor “could always fill in white space with a wisecrack.” His cinematic work was matched by his television roles, making him one of the few actors who could and did play both mediums with relative ease. O’Brien was best known on TV for Johnny Midnight (syndication, 1960) and Sam Benedict (NBC, 1962-63), and for literally hundreds of character roles on scores of programs. As an independent actor without permanent contracts in an age when contracts were the only route to steady work, O’Brien showed a business acumen and creative talent all his own, earning him the moniker “the hardest working man in Hollywood.”

Legend has it that O’Brien was to have been awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 1986, but he passed before a vote was held.

O’Brien’s last roles on the big screen or small were in 1974 when he was 59. But his weight and his hips were getting the better of him, his memory seemed to be failing and so was his heart. So was his bank account. For all the work he did, his finances were never sterling, he was divorced twice, and the father of three children, all of whom ended up in television. Edmund O’Brien died in Inglewood, California of Alzheimer’s Disease on 9 May 1985. Legend has it that O’Brien was to have been awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 1986, but he passed before a vote was held.


Now, today is National TV Dinner day because on 10 September 1953 the first TV dinners (turkey with all the trimmings) were made commercially available in the US by Swanson. The food was pre-cooked and came in aluminum trays, and the meals were meant to be heated in the oven at home. They were intended for convenience like so many things in the ’50s were, and just having a TV was a status symbol: the scene above was promotional for the televisions, not the non-packaged meals.

TV dinners have gone through many transitions since their origins. Swanson wasn’t the first and was hardly the last, but Swanson was the first to make it a commercial success. In my youth, TV dinners were common about once a week when Dad was out-of-town on business. They were generally OK but tended towards the bland, and in the ’60s there wasn’t a great deal of variety: chicken, roast beef, turkey, repeat. When the brownies started in the mid-60s, this was something, and there were hot dogs with buns and beans and franks. Then, as ever, life changed, and I didn’t see another TV dinner until I saw the Army’s version–the T-Rations–only once, sometime around 1975. They were about the same except on a cardboard tray and slightly larger.

In my bachelor days I tried some TV dinners again, but either I had outgrown them, or the industry had just stopped trying, as I found them bordering on the disgusting–even my cooking was better. I don’t think I’ve had a TV dinner since the early ’80s.

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Declarations of War and Labor Day 2018

So, summer’s gone now (unofficially: the eggheads wait until 22 September to declare it officially over), the kids are back in school–or soon will be, and the air conditioners in the Great Lakes can start to slow down…any day now…OK…steady now…

3 September finds a lot happening. On 3 September 1189 Richard I was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey–probably one of the only times he was in England. Known as Richard the Lion-Hearted by the poets and other things by his contemporaries; his reign was principally marked by his absence on the Second Crusade and by the ransom demanded by the Germans for his safe return, which bankrupted England for five hundred years. And on 3 September 1868, the little Japanese village of Edo–“estuary” in Japanese– on the edge of the Kanto plain on the island of Honshu became the capital city of Tokyo–“east capital”–with the arrival of the Meiji Emperor. The imperial capital had been Kyoto since time immemorial, but the new “direct” rule system (which was about as direct as it is now) required a civil government that was fully defined with the Meiji Constitution that would follow in 1889. And on this day in 1935, Malcomb Campbell became the first person to drive an automobile at over 300 miles an hour at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, averaging 301.33 mph in two runs. Campbell set three land speed records in his lifetime, and four water speed records, and was one of the few speed demons in his era to die of natural causes. Today is also National Welch Rarebit Day for unknown reasons, and US Bowling League Day also because someone said so. But today we talk briefly about the beginning of the second round of the German Wars and holidays with lots of origins.

Europe had been going at this since the fall of Rome, and this latest round of bloodletting was going to go global. 

On 3 September 1939 Great Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. This much is entirely sure but, like many such momentous events, the reasons why can be somewhat confused. The proximate cause–the one closest to the fact–was because Germany had invaded Poland and wouldn’t leave. But before that, as we talked about last week, the Danzig corridor and the East Prussian rump were thorns in the German side. But since they were imposed on a prostrate Germany in 1919, Britain and France felt compelled to enforce the territorial integrity of this incarnation of Poland. And so they declared war. This has always been the conventional explanation, and it fits all the evidence. But, it’s way too simple. Europe had been going at this since the fall of Rome, and this latest round of bloodletting was going to go global.

This time, when the war spread across the oceans and the Japanese decided to take advantage of Europe’s distraction, the Americans undertook to make sure that it never happened again…not like this.

The origins of the periodic madness in Europe go back even further than the British and French desire to curb German ambitions in 1939, but this result was much different. For ages, the term “peace” for most European conflicts meant some negotiated settlement, the exchange of a few acres here and there, and a return to the status quo after some reparations were made. But Versailles was different: it was much more onerous on Germany than any other imposed peace. And, for the first time, this European peace included input from those upstart Americans, who insisted on a lot of things, then refused to participate in the administration or enforcement of the peace. This time, when the war spread across the oceans and the Japanese decided to take advantage of Europe’s distraction, the Americans undertook to make sure that it never happened again…not like this.

The depths of their miscalculations were only obvious in early 1943, after the collapse of the Stalingrad defense, the end of the Guadalcanal campaign, and the final campaigns in North Africa began showed that there would be no negotiated European peace this time. 

This time there were demands for unconditional surrender of all belligerents, and this time something called the United Nations signed off on it. The members of this new outfit included the most powerful and productive industrial states in human history which had the capability to literally drown their enemies in oil, then bury them in the dunnage used to pack their war material. None of the Axis powers had the capacity to fight a prolonged global war, yet all gambled that their enemies lacked the guts for one. The depths of their miscalculations were only obvious in early 1943, after the collapse of the Stalingrad defense, the end of the Guadalcanal campaign, and the final campaigns in North Africa began showed that there would be no negotiated European peace this time.

And all of this because a Bohemian corporal gambled with someone else’s money…and blood.

Italy would be the first to give up in 1943. Germany would hold out until annihilation in the spring of 1945; Japan in late summer of the same year. This time, the Americans and Soviets imposed not just a harsh peace on Germany, but its dismemberment. Prussia would become extinct; Germany itself divided for half a century and occupied for a decade and more. And all of this because a Bohemian corporal gambled with someone else’s money…and blood.


Labor Day in the US has somewhat confused origins. International Workers’ Day has been observed in Europe on 1 May since the 19th century. Since the 1950s May Day has been thought of as celebrating the “worker’s paradise” found in Cuba and the former Soviet Union. But May Day is indeed as American as baseball and apple pie, originating with the pre-Christian holiday of Beltane, a celebration of rebirth and fertility.

The September Labor Day started in the 1880s when the clandestine General Assembly of the Knights of Labor organized a parade in New York on 5 September 1882 under the auspices of the Central Labor Union. Now is where the story gets confusing. The CLU’s secretary was Matthew Mcguire. An alternative theory for Labor Day’s origins holds that the American Federation of Labor’s vice president PJ McGuire first suggested the first Monday in September as a holiday for working people. To make it worse, the CLU eventually joined the AFL-CIO, meaning that the same organization has two Mcguire’s with different spellings claiming that they both originated Labor Day. No wonder they strike so much.

In 1894, the first Monday in September (unless it falls on 1 September) was declared a Federal holiday in the US, and all the states now recognize it. We now celebrate labor by not working. It’s the American way.

 

 

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Danzig and the Polish Corridor and Just-Because Day

Last week in August. School starts in this part of the world, and folks are looking towards either ending their summers in a flurry of activity or starting their fall cleanup because…soon the snow will fall. True fact: the only month on record where snow has not fallen in Wisconsin is August. A little weird, but that’s the Great Lakes for ya.

On 27 August 479 BC, the Greeks turned back yet another Persian invasion at sea near Mount Mycale on the Ionian coast and on land at Platea in Boeotia, two of the most decisive battles in the ancient world. Though not as well known as Thermopylae, Marathon or Salamis fought before, these two battles turned back the Persians for another generation and shifted the balance of power in the Aegean to the Greeks. On this day in 1809, Hannibal Hamlin was born in Paris in what is now Maine (then Massachusetts). Hamlin is best known for being Abraham Lincoln’s first vice-president (replaced by Andrew Johnson in the 1864 election), and if he had been in office today just imagine what the late-night comics would make of his name. And on 27 August 1929, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which was officially called the General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy, was signed in Paris. In a decade all the signatories (that included Germany, Japan, and Italy) would be regarding this piece of paper as being the most worthless document ever promulgated, and in twenty years all of them would be recovering from a global war. Today is also National Pots de Creme Day that only exists because of habit. But today we’re talking about bullies, and about doing what you want when you want to because you want to.

The Polish Corridor was the brainchild of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and its creation was the direct result of not occupying Germany but trying to isolate what Europe saw as the cause of Germany’s militaristic problem.

The Polish Corridor existed, in part, because Britain and France didn’t want to be following an American victory parade in 1919 or 1920. There, I said it. Sue me. The Polish Corridor was the brainchild of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and its creation was the direct result of not occupying Germany but trying to isolate what Europe saw as the cause of Germany’s militaristic problem.

Merely disarming the Germans as the Versailles treaty did wasn’t going to change the Prussian attitudes towards their neighbors and their pathological need for a strong military to make up for their lack of geographic boundaries.

The fact is that Germany wasn’t really and genuinely defeated as a nation in 1918, but settled for a “European peace” that stopped the fighting, moved a few borders, paid out a few coins, but otherwise maintained the status quo ante of 1914. The German monarchy had collapsed, Austria-Hungary folded, the Ottomans were displaced, but the root of the issue in central Europe–German revanchist militarism–was still more or less in place. Merely disarming the Germans as the Versailles treaty did wasn’t going to change the Prussian attitudes towards their neighbors and their pathological need for a robust military to make up for their lack of geographic boundaries.

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Seventy-five miles wide, the cause of the Second World War.

So the Polish Corridor carved a seventy-five-mile wide chunk out of Pomerania on the Baltic Sea and created a geographic freak called East Prussia that, administratively, was still a part of Germany. (Yes, this part of the world had been Poland once, but it had also been Sweden and Lithuania from time to time.) While it gave the new Polish republic access to the Baltic, it also created a “free city” called Danzig, and a raison d’être for any resurgent Germans to hate a perpetually weak Poland, and the powers that created such an “insult” to German pride. All that was needed was a German strong enough and with a large enough following to rearm the country and demand the geographic reunification of East Prussia with Germany, even if it meant the destruction–again–of Poland.

Its head was an Austrian-born former Bavarian Army corporal named Adolf Hitler whose messianic image presented Germany with a firm direction and some scapegoats for Germany’s troubles: Poland was one of those scapegoats.

Enter the National Socialists. Starting before all the smoke had cleared from the War to End All Wars in 1918, strong-willed and influential Germans began making speeches, promises, and threats. After a decade of economic chaos, political mayhem and a dozen different governments, the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, NSDAP in German or merely the Nazis came out on top in Germany. Its head was an Austrian-born former Bavarian Army corporal named Adolf Hitler whose messianic image presented Germany with a firm direction and some scapegoats for Germany’s troubles: Poland was one of those scapegoats.

While the Poles had not been very nice to the Germans living in the Corridor, “oppressed” was not a good term to use to describe their plight, but it worked for propaganda purposes to whip up public sentiment in Germany.

By 1938, after the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia, Germany started to negotiate more direct access to East Prussia. Lacking a land route was a distinct technical problem for customs and tariffs, so there was some validity to German desires to address the issue. But the Germans overreached, demanding both a superhighway and a double-track railway across the Polish Corridor, effectively nullifying Polish sovereignty there. The Poles said no, so the Nazis manufactured a crisis and a whole new class of “oppressed” Germans: the Danzigers. While the Poles had not been very kind to the Germans living in the Corridor, “oppressed” was not a proper term to use to describe their plight, but it worked for propaganda purposes to whip up public sentiment in Germany.

By 1939, Germany had lost patience with Poland. Many Germans didn’t even like the idea of Poland, let alone the reality. On 27 August 1939, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop handed British ambassador to Germany Neville Henderson a note demanding:

  • The return of the city of Danzig to German control;
  • A plebiscite in the Corridor on whether it should remain a part of Poland or revert to Germany–remarkable because former German residents were to be given a vote and Poles who had lived there all their lives were not.

Henderson and the Chamberlain government were under no illusions as to what was behind this demand, one that neither Poland nor Great Britain nor France would agree to. Since, unknown to all but the Germans, this ultimatum came a week and a half after Hitler had issued the invasion orders, this was cynical at best and a diplomatic fig leaf at worst. But Hitler expected his gambler’s luck to hold a little while longer–that miscalculation led to WWII.


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Just Because!

National Just Because Day was started in the 1950s by  Joseph J. Goodwin of Los Gatos, CA, as a family holiday, but it just spread, like so many good ideas. Feel free to celebrate this day in any way you choose.  Just because!

Every day most of us do things we are expected or required to do. On National Just Because Day, this common sense doesn’t have to apply. Today give you license to do things without rhyme or reason.

  • Buy that outfit at the mall that you’ve been drooling over…just because!
  • Use a vacation day to go fishing…just because!
  • Pick up the tab for the table next to you …just because!
  • Sing really loud in your car with your windows rolled down…just because!
  • Surprise someone you care about with flowers like the gent on top…just because!
  • Jump in the water with your friends like the three above…just because!
  • Kiss a friend like the two below…just because!
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Just Because!

Just do it today…just because you can and it feels good and it makes you and someone else happy.

But, moderation, please. Don’t set yourself on fire just because you have a can of gas and a match.

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Benjamin Harrison and National Radio Day

August is nearly done, and so is summer in the Great Lakes. Still hot, still sticky, air conditioner still grinding away–thankfully. But I replaced the furnace this year, so at least I know that blower will run all summer–and is on warranty.

On 20 August in the year 2 (we think), there was a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter visible in the morning sky on Earth. This happens every three years and change, but this one was so close that it may have been visible in daylight and is one scientific explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. On 20 August 1794, near what is now known as Maumee, Ohio, the Battle of Fallen Timbers ended the Northwest War between the United States and the loosely-joined Native American tribes in the Western Confederacy and helped to open up the Ohio River country for American settlement.  The battle was fought by a purpose-built 2,000-man American force led by “Mad” Anthony Wayne, a famous Revolutionary War commander, and a similarly-sized Native American force that included a company of British regulars. Also on this day in 1914, Britain, France and Germany started the bloodletting in France in what would come to be called the Battle of the Frontiers. Simultaneously, the Russians and Germans had at each other at Gumbinnen, over in Prussia. The supreme irony here is that, on 20 August 1940, France would surrender to Germany. Today, for reasons surpassing understanding, is also National Chocolate Pecan Pie Day. But today we’re going to talk about an obscure but essential president, and about radios.

These assessments of blandness may be correct, but they obscure Benjamin Harrison’s many achievements.

Benjamin Harrison, born 20 August 1833 in North Bend, Ohio, is frequently said to have been something of a cipher. He was the grandson of the president with the shortest tenure, William Henry Harrison (31 days); a Civil War general of not great repute but enormous competence; and the president best known as the one between Grover Cleveland’s two administrations. These assessments of blandness may be correct, but they obscure Benjamin Harrison’s many achievements.

Harrison’s tenure as senator was lackluster, but as president, he was, for a 19th-century chief executive, remarkable.

Ben Harrison only held two elected offices in his life: a one-term senator from Indiana (1881-1887) and a one-term president (1889-1893). A more-than-competent attorney, Harrison always managed to be in the right place at the right time, and even though his friends in high office were few, US Grant was among them. He was a gifted orator, a better-than-average legal writer, a savvy investor who didn’t lose money in any of the various postwar panics, and a reliable campaign friend to have in Indiana. Harrison’s tenure as senator was lackluster, but as president, he was, for a 19th-century chief executive, remarkable.

The prevailing spoils system, where federal jobs changed with every new administration, was becoming not only awkward but obsolete because many jobs like postmaster and customs collector were becoming more technically involved.

Harrison wasn’t the first to be elected without winning the popular vote, but his election in 1888 may have been regarded as the most suspicious until 2016. The Electoral College vote wasn’t even close–233 to 168 in his favor. Then, as now, the losing Democrats wrote editorial after editorial arguing that the Electoral College should be disposed of. But Harrison ignored his party when selecting his cabinet, frustrating Republican bosses across the country by avoiding patronage. And patronage was at the heart of the civil service reform that was popular among politicians at that time, with a merit system being described and argued. The prevailing spoils system, where federal jobs changed with every new administration, was becoming not only awkward but obsolete because many positions like postmaster and customs collector were becoming more technically involved.

Harrison was the first president to have electric lights in the White House, was the first to have his voice recorded, and was the last for whom we have no moving pictures.

Harrison was in the White House when the last battle of the Long War between the Europeans and their African and Asian allies and the Native Americans broke the revivalist Ghost Dance movement among the Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota on 29 December 1890. He didn’t have anything directly to do with it, but, like George HW Bush was in the scene when the Cold War ended, Harrison saw the end of the most protracted American war. But Harrison saw more states enter the Union than any other president–six–and his face appears on more stamps than any other Chief Executive–five. Harrison was the first president to have electric lights in the White House (though he was too frightened of electrocution to turn them off), was the first to have his voice recorded, and was the last for whom we have no moving pictures.

Harrison attended the first peace conference at The Hague in 1899, argued a boundary dispute case in Paris that won him international renown, and died of pneumonia on 13 March 1901 at age 67–not bad for a footnote in history.

The election of 1892 was a low-key affair in no little measure because Harrison’s wife Caroline was dying of tuberculosis (she passed two weeks before the election). Grover Cleveland won both the popular and the electoral vote handily, reentering the White House in March 1893. Ben Harrison went home to Indiana, remarried in 1896 (at 62, to a 37-year-old widow), and fathered another child in 1897. Harrison attended the first peace conference at The Hague in 1899, argued a boundary dispute case in Paris that won him international renown, and died of pneumonia on 13 March 1901 at age 67–not bad for a footnote in history.


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Something we can all identify with

Now, National Radio Day is today, 20 August. Once again, who first decided this is a mystery for the ages, though one theory is that 8MK, now WWJ in Detroit, first broadcast in the clear on 20 August 1920, and someone, some time decided to commemorate that day. The day has been observed regularly since the early 1990s, mostly as a promotional gimmick I would imagine.

The pretty young ladies on the beach in the lead picture, struggling to hold that (probably empty) boom box over their head, are posing for the camera. I do not know of anyone who gets that excited over commercial radio in the 21st century except maybe the broadcasters. Perhaps that’s the reason why there’s a website supporting National Radio Day that lists stations across the US that support National Radio Day in some way or another.

It’s been a long time since I listened to broadcast radio in any form, though I do get satellite radio in my car from time to time. Like most music-only consumers, I prefer commercial-free satellite radio or streaming these days. The babbling DJs, the shouting pundits I can do without.

Still, commercial broadcast radio has had an outstanding, salutary role in American society and the world. Most Americans first heard of the Pearl Harbor attacks and the death of Franklin Roosevelt on the radio. Many adults–especially those over 40–courted their current significant others to the sound of the radio in the car or the park or the basement. So you don’t have to listen to appreciate radio anymore, just know and recognize what a role it has played in our lives for nearly a century.

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Tenbun Hokke Disturbance and Left-Hander’s Day

August drags on…nearly the middle of the month now…the heat is unrelenting…the air conditioner drones day and night…resist…temptation…to wish…for January…

OK, 13 August. Most remarkable things happened on this day. For example, in 3114 BC, the Mayans started their calendar; so would somebody tell me, please…how did they know that it would be the middle of August? (ba-dump-bump). On 13 August 1851, Johnny Clem was born in Newark, Ohio; he managed to join the Union Army sometime during the Civil War, but there’s no evidence he was hurt at Shiloh, or even that he was there, making the “Johnny Shiloh” moniker the stuff of legends. Nonetheless, he did retire in 1915 a brigadier general, the last Civil War veteran serving in the Army.  On this day in 1913, British metallurgist Henry Brearley announced his formulation of 12.8% chromium and 0.24% carbon as an additive to steel, making what some claim was the true first stainless steel. There had been patents for stainless as early as the 1820s, but the formulation of a minimum of 10% chromium wasn’t established until 1911. As in anything else industrial, the bragging rights for being “first” are just that. And on 13 August 1953, Omar Bradley finally caught the brass ring in the US Army’s merry-go-round by being named Army Chief of Staff, working for his old friend Dwight Eisenhower, the recently-elected president. It’s also National Prosecco Day because some vintner says it is and the National Day Calendar agreed. But today we’re talking about Japanese warrior monks and southpaws.

This was one example that disproves the idea that all Buddhists are and have always been peaceful, and was one of many examples of the Japanese tradition of Gekokujō.

On 13 August (traditional date 27 July) 1536, Buddhist Sōhei (literally “monk warriors”) from Kyōto’s Enryaku Temple set fire to 21 rival Nichiren temples throughout Kyoto in what has come to be known as the Tenbun Hokke Disturbance. This action was just one example of many that disprove the idea that all Buddhists are and have always been peaceful, and was one of many examples of the Japanese tradition of Gekokujō.

The warriors-monks protected land as extensions of their patrons, becoming a significant factor in the spread of Buddhism and the development of different schools during the Kamakura (1185-1333) period.

The Buddhist warrior monks of feudal Japan held considerable power, at certain points in Japan’s history, they obliged the imperial and military governments to collaborate. By the 12th century, the Go-Shirakawa Emperor complained that he could not control the monks of Enryaku-Ji sect. These monks of different sects acted as auxiliary armies for Japan’s rival daimyos, often marching alongside their patrons on campaigns. The prominence of the sōhei rose in parallel with the ascendancy of the Tendai Buddhist school’s influence between the 10th and 17th centuries. The warrior-monks protected land as extensions of their patrons and intimidated rival schools of Buddhism, becoming a significant factor in the spread of Buddhism and the development of different schools during the Kamakura (1185-1333) period.

After the Tenbun Hokke (so called for the period of Japan’s history ) Disturbance, the Ashikaga shogunate in Kyoto found it almost impossible to control this band of brothers and turned against them.

The warrior monks living high in the mountains above the (southern) imperial capital were intended to protect Kyoto from evil, but in fact, they were there because theirs was the most militarily powerful sect in proximity to the imperial throne, and thus to the resources of money, food, and influence.  After the Tenbun Hokke (so-called for the period of Japan’s history ) Disturbance, the Ashikaga shogunate in Kyoto found it almost impossible to control this band of brothers and turned against them.

Revolts both small and large were commonplace. One source claims that there were at least two Gekokujō revolts large and small each year for nearly four centuries, and often more.

But other daimyos and other priorities got in the way, not the least of which was the tradition of Gekokujō. Literally, this word means “the low shall rule the high,” and by the 15th century, it had come to be a matter of faith in Japan among the samurai and those who served them that was as deep as any religion. As odd as it may seem to a more ordered society, Gekokujō was seen by peasants, monks, minor lords and even groups of artisans or merchants to be tacit permission to violently rebel against an overlord. Revolts both small and large were commonplace. One source claims that there were at least two Gekokujō revolts large and small each year for nearly four centuries, and often more.

Gekokujō slept for a time in the 19th century, only to be resurrected in the 20th by the militant neo-samurai who provoked “incidents” that led Japan farther along the path to war, and who refused to even think of their oncoming defeat against the West in 1945. 

In 1571, as part of a program to remove all potential rivals and unite the country, shogun Nobunaga Oda ended this Buddhist militancy by attacking the Enryaku-Ji temple complex, leveling the buildings and slaughtering the monks. Other, less powerful warrior monk sects were similarly treated for the next twenty years, but the rise of the Zen Buddhists did more to eliminate (or convert) the militants who got away from the purges. But the Gekokujō tradition remained after the Tokugawa shogunate started in 1604. Gekokujō slept for a time in the 19th century, only to be resurrected in the 20th by the militant neo-samurai who provoked “incidents” that led Japan farther along the path to war, and who refused to even think of their oncoming defeat against the West in 1945.


Now, today is either International Left-Hander’s Day or it’s just Left-Hander’s Day: sources differ. The point is that we’re supposed to be either celebrating or commemorating or just recognizing all those southpaws out there today.

But there’s a fly in that soup. In the first place, the very nature of “handedness” isn’t all that clear. Some of the eggheads with more research money than sense claim that the reason the 90/20 ratio of righties to lefties exists is that the evolutionary models all show that the more social an animal, the more they tend to be commonly-handed. Regrettably, these same people can’t really say why such a distinction exists, anyway. Some say genetics, others say the environment.

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Famous Lefty…genetics or environment?

Famously, the Housecarls of early medieval Britain were all left-handed. Being some of the most massive men in England wasn’t enough, and all carrying the most feared weapons of the age–the heavy battleax–wasn’t enough. These guys could all step inside any shield wall and batter it to pieces on their opponents’ off-side. Regrettably, for Harold in 1066, they couldn’t stop arrows that easily.

Nearly everyone who went to a parochial school before the 1970s who was unfortunate enough to claim to have been left-handed was converted to right-handedness without fail, but often without success. The reason for this attempted conversion was old but was not because of the Latin sinister (left) and dexter (right). It was because the inkwells on 19th-century school desks were all on the right, and because dragging one’s sleeve through the wet ink when writing from left to right soiled the robes or other sleeves with impossible-to-remove ink.

To read one study of left-handedness, one would be given to believe that more top athletes were left-handed than were right-handed, but that doesn’t wash. Left-handed pitchers (southpaws, so-called because of the geographic orientation of important early baseball fields) have a slight edge in the game but not as disproportionate as might be expected, as are left-handed batters (strike zone is different). Left-handed golfers are rare, however, and almost unknown in the shooting sports. Only goaltenders are common lefties in hockey; left-handed quarterbacks are in smaller proportions than they are in the general population.

The woman above’s plight is, of course, made-up but emblematic of our modern culture of wanting something to be recognized for. I was ambidextrous as a lad but gradually switched to right-only, even though I always wore my watch on my right for unclear reasons, and I still do. A story my mother used to tell about me in kindergarten was that my teacher was convinced I needed to go to a special school because I couldn’t write correctly. My dad looked at a sample, went to a mirror and held it up: it was perfectly backward. “It’s OK with his right hand, but backward with his left,” Dad told her. “Don’t worry about it.” Dad, apparently, had the same problem as a kid and outgrew it by 2nd Grade, and so did I. I’ve heard since that this kind of thing is not that unusual. That my dad survived it, however, probably was.