Mad Dog Mattis

My colleague Judi Irvine alerts me to an interview this morning on NPR with Gen. Jim Mattis, former Secretary of Defense, whose book Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead has just been published. Whatever one might think of the Iraq war, or about American policy in the Middle East in general, one should find Mattis’s use of history to be sound.

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NPR: The general describes his own detailed planning in bring troops into Iraq. In 2003, he read thousands of years of history, Alexander the Great and others, who invaded that region before him. What could a multi-thousand year old battle teach you that would be relevant in the twenty-first century?

JM: Well there’s enduring aspects of leadership, plus geography doesn’t change. So when you read about the challenges they faced it gets you thinking about your own. I knew we were going to be operating very deep inside the Middle East and I had to decide what was the right manner in which I wanted the troops to go in. So I used words from antiquity, from a Roman general I used, “No better friend, no worse enemy.” We were going in to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam. We were not going in to dominate them, I didn’t want triumphalism. I wanted to go with a sense of “first do no harm.”

NPR: So you read thousands of pages and then try to boil it down to a few phrases or in some cases even a word that you could pass on to thousands of people?

JM: Well that’s a leader’s job, to clearly set the vision…

JM: I think we need to have a more rigorous establishment of strategy, a more clearly enunciated policy, something we can sustain from Republicans to Democrats, like in the Cold War. I think that the biggest challenge we face in all the western democracies, not just America, is that we don’t study history in a way that we can apply it, and we’re not rigorously applying ourselves to strategy. There’s too much of a short-term view.

L’Anse aux Meadows

Flags of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, and the United Nations, at the L’Anse aux Meadows visitors’ centre. 

As promised, a post about L’Anse aux Meadows, an archaeological site of some importance, located at the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland and maintained as a National Heritage Site by Parks Canada. The site, discovered in the 1960s, offers indisputable proof that Scandinavians settled in the New World around the year 1000, almost five hundred years before Columbus landed in the Bahamas; for this reason it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also quite popular and provides a lot of the branding for local tourism (the Viking Trail, the Viking Lodge, the Great Viking Feast, etc.)

Several Icelandic sagas describe voyages made by the Norse from their settlements in Greenland to mainland North America in search of needed supplies, chiefly timber. The explorers visited places they named “Helluland,” “Markland,” and “Vinland” – and since the nineteenth century archaeologists have tried to identify them. It is reckoned that “Helluland” is Baffin Island, and “Markland” somewhere on the coast of Labrador. Vinland was more elusive: the sagas describe it as a place where wild grapes grew, which could be on the southern shore of of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or south of that in New England. 

Vínland, with an acute accent over the “i”, means “wineland,” which would be a natural name for a place with wild grapes. The Norwegian husband-and-wife team of Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad, however, hypothesized that it was simply “Vinland,” without the accent, which would mean “pastureland,” with northern Newfoundland being a promising site. Visiting L’Anse aux Meadows in 1960, he was shown a series of low turf walls that the locals referred to as “the Indian mounds.” Excavations throughout the 1960s showed that these were the remains of buildings similar to those found in Iceland and Greenland and dating from around AD 1000. What really established the site as Norse, however, were such discoveries as a spindle whorl used for weaving, a stone with a depression in the middle (interpreted either as a lamp or a pivot stone for a door), a bronze fastening pin, and the remains of a forge that had produced iron slag, and the remains of iron rivets used for boat repair. No Natives at this time used such technology. 

Remains of the Viking buildings.

As it turns out, L’Anse aux Meadows is probably not Vinland, which really ought to have a long “i” and mean “Wineland,” as the sagas suggest. Birgitta Linderoth Wallace points out, in Westward Vikings, that the word “vin” as “pasture” had fallen out of use by 1000. She suggests that Vinland was likely somewhere in northern New Brunswick, and that L’Anse aux Meadows is Straumfjord (“Current Ford”) mentioned in Erik the Red’s Saga, a sort of base camp that served as a gateway to Vinland and a place to gather goods before shipping them back to Greenland. The inhabitants at the site did not practice agriculture, but they could spend the winter there if need be, in the substantial turf buildings they had constructed.

Model of the site.

Will we ever discover where in “Vinland” the Norse actually came ashore? Wallace claims that it’s unlikely. Any temporary camps the Norse may have set up in New Brunswick would have left little evidence behind, or at least such evidence would be indistinguishable from sites of Native provenance. Even items of Viking origin would not be proof of an actual encampment, but simply of trade (such items can travel a long way from their point of origin, through many intermediaries). 

Parks Canada reconstruction of Norse buildings at L’Anse aux Meadows.

L’Anse aux Meadows was not occupied for very long, perhaps less than ten years in total (at least, if you don’t subscribe to the most recent scholarship on the place). Our guide claimed that the Ingstads, and subsequent archaeologists, have actually found very little at the site, evidence that it was deliberately abandoned (if it were suddenly and hastily abandoned, the occupants would have left a lot more stuff, since they wouldn’t have had time to clean it up). He also claimed that the abandonment was as a result of the conversion of the Norse to Christianity, which also took place around the year 1000. With conversion, trade with Europe became much easier, obviating the need to sail to Vinland, although Wallace suggests, from evidence uncovered in Greenland, that the Vinland explorers were already Christian. Either way, it was likely just as easy to sail to Norway as it was to Newfoundland, where more interesting goods could be acquired, and where there was a bigger market for Greenland’s walrus ivory. And in any event, Wallace estimates that maintaining the site was too expensive in terms of manpower – it would have required some 5% of the adult male population of Greenland, which was simply too much.

Reconstructed forge, L’Anse aux Meadows.

It is certainly worth a visit if you ever get there. The Visitors’ Centre is excellent, with thorough and informative exhibits, and a great gift shop. The reconstructed buildings, complete with re-enactors, are also a lot of fun. 

But part of me wonders whether it isn’t somewhat ethnocentric to make such a big deal about L’Anse aux Meadows. The place is significant, but far more significant is Port au Choix, an archaeological site which we visited as we drove up the northern peninsula. It features six thousand years of continuous occupation by successive Native peoples, including the Maritime Archaic people, the Dorset people, the Groswater people and the Beothuks, all of whom fished and hunted seals. This place deserves to be better known.

The trouble is that it would be politically very difficult to have re-enactors playing Indians. Even the diorama, you’ll notice, does not feature three-dimensional figures.

Colonial Seals of Canada

Warning: this post is technical and pedantic.

Two years ago I wrote a post about the evolution of Canada’s coat of arms. Prior to Confederation in 1867, though, it seems that no colony regularly used a coat of arms. Instead, colonies represented themselves with emblematic seals, on the rare occasions when they needed to. Few people know about these seals nowadays; it seems that joining Confederation and adopting a coat of arms went hand-in-hand.

One place where you can see some colonial-era seals is in the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, near the entrance to the House of Commons. I took these pictures in 2006, but I only noticed just now that they aren’t exactly parallel to each other. 

Upper Canada (i.e. Ontario).

Lower Canada (i.e. Quebec).

New Brunswick.

Nova Scotia.

You will notice that the seals of both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have renditions of the royal arms hanging over an emblematic scene, a feature that does not exist in the seals of Upper and Lower Canada. This wasn’t always the case, however: Conrad Swan’s Symbols of Sovereignty (1977) illustrates colonial-era seals for both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia that are simply the emblematic scenes. 

“Obverse (proof impression) and reverse of the 1817 Great Seal Deputed of New Brunswick of George III.” From Swan, Symbols of Sovereignty, 150.

“Great Seal Deputed of Nova Scotia of George III, in use from 1818.” From Swan, Symbols of Sovereignty, 128.

Or rather, what we have here are double-sided seals, with the emblematic scene on one side, and the royal arms on the other. There was a time when official instruments featured seals hanging by ribbons from the bottom of the document, in which case it was possible for a different design to be impressed on either side of the wax. Letters Patent originating from the College of Arms in London are still done this way, as is the honorary grant of arms to the Virginia Senate:

What seems to have happened, over the course of the early nineteenth century, is that dependent seals went out of fashion, and seals impressed directly into the document became more common. Thus, the royal arms had to migrate from one side of the seal to the other, so that both the arms and the scene could appear on the same side. This shift occurred in Upper and Lower Canada as well:

“Proof impression of the Great Seal Deputed of Upper Canada of Victoria.” From Swan, Symbols of Sovereignty, 167.

“Proof impression of the Great Seal Deputed of Lower Canada of William IV, 1832.” From Swan, Symbols of Sovereignty, 111.

Note the dates here: the first is from the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), and the second from the reign of King William IV (1830-37), while the double-sided ones are all from the reign of George III (1760-1820). 

Actually, the seal of Upper Canada for Victoria could not have seen much use, because in 1841 Upper and Lower Canada were united to form the United Province of Canada (subdivided into “Canada West” and “Canada East,” but still one polity). The seal of the United Province of Canada showed both seals of Upper and Lower Canada together, under the royal arms, as had become the custom by that time. 

A. & P. Vachon Collection, Canadian Museum of History.

So I would say that the display in the House of Commons could have been done slightly better. It should either show four emblematic scenes alone, for Upper Canada, Lower Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia – or it should show only three seals with the royal arms over the emblematic scene: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and United Canada, as representing the political situation on the eve of Confederation. (People forget that only three colonies came together in 1867, because immediately Canada was redivided into Ontario and Quebec.)

But as I say, each of these now-provinces has a coat of arms, and that’s what people know. These coats of arms are what got engraved into the provincial seals. From Wikipedia, here is Ontario’s:

The royal arms appear in the centre, while Ontario’s arms are at the base, both of them within a glorious Victorian-Gothic frame. 

Apparently this was a template: other provinces have the same design. Quebec certainly did:

From Swan, Symbols of Sovereignty, 114.

Swan designates this as the “Present Great Seal of Quebec” but the design did not last very long after his book was published in 1977. The previous year, you see, the Parti Québécois had taken power in Quebec, and proceeded to refashion it in their image. From Wikipedia, here is the real present seal of Quebec, which dates from 1979:

So they jettisoned both the royal arms and their provincial arms, which features references to Britain and Canada as well as France. (Frankly, I’m surprised that they haven’t changed this as well.) 

Wikipedia. 

Instead, the current seal just features a simple fleur de lys, done in the standardized Quebec style (and a ring of fleur de lys around the exterior, like the hem of the old Quebec Nordiques sweaters). You’ll also note an acute accent over the first “e” in Quebec, even though accents are optional on capital letters – and no reference at all to Quebec being a “province.”

Vive le Québec libre! 

“Hard Lessons From the Russian Civil War”

From Reason (hat tip: Alex Bryant):

The official 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which birthed the world’s first Communist state, came and went two years ago. But the revolution actually played out over five horrific years known as the Russian Civil War. A century ago this summer, the anti-Bolshevik White forces were running a fully functional government in northern Russia. Their “Supreme Ruler,” Admiral Alexander Kolchak, was internationally recognized as the head of state, and their army was crushing the Bolsheviks in the South. By November 1919, the tide had turned. By the time the war was over, between 7 and 12 million were dead, and the Communists were victorious….

While many of the White movement’s leaders ostensibly espoused liberal ideas, it is safe to say that freedom had no real friends in the Russian Civil War. Still, it’s a virtual certainty that Russia—and most likely the world—would have been better off if the Whites had won.

They didn’t, for many reasons. They were just as unpopular as the Bolsheviks and more divided. Their leaders clung to Russia’s “great power” status and were adamantly opposed to Ukrainian independence or autonomy for other regions, which forced them to fight both the Bolsheviks and the separatists. The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, were not only more unified but more unscrupulous in their strategic alliances: They joined forces with Makhno’s anarchists only to turn on them the moment the White Army was no longer a threat.

A hundred years later, Russian Communism is gone; in its place is an authoritarian regime that promotes Soviet nostalgia…. The most trenchant lesson for the modern age is one that also seems increasingly relevant to the West: When political adversaries are no longer fellow citizens to live with but rather enemies to be crushed, we all lose.

Read the whole thing

Eighty Years Ago

Eighty years ago today Nazi Germany invaded Poland, thus beginning “World War II,” because this time the British and the French actually responded to an act of German aggression by declaring war. Let us not forget that the Soviets also invaded Poland 16 days later, occupying the eastern third of it – and that fighting had been going on in the East for some time already. 

Here is Auden’s famous poem on the event (from Poets.org):

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

The New Year + Indian Flaggery

Thanks to Jeff Bishop, director of the Funk Heritage Center, for lending us the space yesterday for our history program pop-up party to start off the new academic year. A good time was had by all!

In keeping with one of the themes of this blog, here are images of the flags hanging in the main hall, representing the so-called Five Civilized Tribes of the American southeast. 

The flag of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, one of three federally-recognized Cherokee tribes in the United States. 

Flag of the Chickasaw Nation, also headquartered in Oklahoma. 

There is a Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, but this flag is of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. A third Choctaw band claims Jena, Louisiana as its home.

The flag of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, or as it says on the flag, “Indian Territory.”

The flag of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma does not appear, but that of the Seminole Tribe of Florida does. 

Finally, what does this sixth flag mean? It’s a great design, but apparently it is the flag flown by the Creek… as allies of the Confederate States of America!

(Personally, I wouldn’t hang this one.)

Alumni News

Pleased to receive a visit yesterday from Kyle Walker ’17, our history program student of the year from two years ago. Mr. Walker is pursuing an associate’s degree in information technology from Chattahoochee Tech and works for 360 SmartNetworks, a company offering “technology solutions for small business,” particularly in the area of cybersecurity. He enjoys the work very much and is getting married next February. 

Treasure

From the BBC (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Detectorists find huge Chew Valley Norman coin hoard

 

A huge hoard of silver coins dating back to the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings could be declared as treasure.

The 2,528 silver coins were found in the Chew Valley, north-east Somerset, by a group of metal detectorists.

Lisa Grace and Adam Staples, who unearthed the bulk of the hoard, said: “We’ve been dreaming of this for 15 years but it’s finally come true.”

The British Museum said it was the second largest find of Norman coins ever in the UK.

Mr Staples, from Derby, added: “It was totally unbelievable – to find one would be an exceptional day metal detecting.

“To find two unrelated coins would be almost impossible. And when there were more beeps, from two to 10, from 50 to 100, to wow how many are there?

“From then on it was just crazy.”

More at the link. Sure wish I could make a find like this!