A New Enemy: A Letter From The Front

New Enemy

U.S, Army 37th Military Advisory Division Sept.–20–
Somewhere on the Syrian Border…

Dear Jane,

We arrived here last night. I don’t think I am supposed to tell you where “here” is but I think that is silly. With GPS and other technology the enemy must surely know where we are. No one is invisible anymore.

It is devilishly hot. It feels like 110 degrees in the shade. The new “No boots on the ground” directive is in effect so we have all been issued moccasins, not very good for a victory parade but they are supposed to be effective for sneaking up on the enemy and catching them by surprise. Anyway we have ample supplies in case they wear out. Speaking of the enemy I hope we get some guidance on who and where they are. In the good old days armies had distinctive uniforms and soldiers knew who they were supposed to kill. Here everyone wears the same raggedy clothes. We should have brought a supply of shirts saying “I am a moderate rebel” to distribute. Anyway, I think our job is to support and advise rather than kill. No one asked for my advice yet which is a good thing. As you know we had a crash course in Arabic before we left. I tried conversing with a fellow who looked harmless enough. He kept smiling and nodding. It turns out our instructor spoke with an Egyptian accent which no one here understands.

Before we left we were told of a vast coalition of people ready to fight with us. Maybe I will meet them later. Or maybe they are helping in other ways like rolling bandages or sending food packages.

We were also told that crushing and uprooting the Islamic State was not an easy task and that we were here for the long haul. But what I am wondering is how will we know when we have won? In the good old days and from what you see in the movies armistices were signed, and then there were unconditional surrenders. Treaties followed. Everyone shook hands and everyone went home. The End. But wars are not what they used to be. Anyway I hope I get someone to support and advise soon. Maybe he will even speak English.

Sorry if I sound downbeat. Hope you are well and I will write again as soon as I can.


It Ain’t Necessarily So


It ain ‘t necessarily so
It ain’t necessarily so
The things that you’re liable
To read in the Bible
It ain’t necessarily so

From Porgy and Bess by George and Ira Gershwin

According to a recent Gallup Poll three in four Americans say they believe the Bible is the word of God. Belief in God in European countries is much smaller. In France it is slightly over 23%. Religion is almost non-existent in Denmark and Sweden. I know that statistics can be misleading but these findings echo my own observations. Since my family and I arrived in the United States in the late forties religiosity has gotten much more pervasive. It seems to have spread like volcanic lava. Presidents Roosevelt and Truman did not end every speech with “God bless America”. According to the Huffington Post Richard Nixon was the first president to use that phrase. Ronald Reagan extended it to every phase of American life. Now Presidents also offer prayers to victims of catastrophes like floods and hurricanes and wherever and whenever misfortune strikes. Barack Obama has embraced this habit with a particular fervor.

It was not until 1954 that the phrase “One nation under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. “In God We Trust” only appeared on our currency in 1956.
Our early Presidents had a very different attitude to religion. They were deists. They believed in the existence of a Supreme Being, a creator who does not interfere in the universe. Deism rejects the belief in a supernatural deity who interacts with humankind. The words Christianity, God, or Bible do not show up at all in our Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson said: It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no god.
Benjamin Franklin was thought to be an atheist although some people dispute this. In Poor Richard’s Almanack he wrote: The way to see by faith is to shut the eyes of reason. And here is what Abraham Lincoln had to say: “The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession.”
Woodrow Wilson wrote that like every intelligent man he believed in evolution.
So it seems that America has regressed to a more primitive attitude and I think that this should disturb every thinking person.

The Power of Music





A news snippet caught my attention…Somewhere in South Africa, baroque music was being played in a vineyard and was credited with stimulating the production and improving the quality of the wine. I had heard of cows giving more milk and hens laying bigger eggs when they were serenaded, but unlike grapes, they have ears. Also why baroque music and not Strauss waltzes or Gregorian Chants? I was puzzled and decided to do a little googling. It turns out that it is not at all unusual to play music in vineyards for better quality wine. It has to do with vibrations and low frequencies. Loudness does not matter but it seems that plants do not like rock .

“Music has charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted tree” (William Congreve, 1697). Orpheus, it was said, could charm animals with his singing. The Pied Piper lured children with the magic of his instrument and don’t snake charmers control serpents with their flutes?

In “The Magic Flute” Pamino calls Tamina with his flute and Papageno pacifies wild animals with his glockenspiel. It also summons his bride Papagena to his side.

Do animals make music or feel its effects? Maybe their elaborate courtship rituals are accompanied by some melodic sounds. When we say that birds sing, is that what they really do? When dogs howl together are they performing in a choir? In laboratories it was found that rats did better and were faster after listening to Mozart. Pet owners know that their cats and dogs react to music. It sometimes agitates and sometimes calms them. But they are not really wired to appreciate sounds tailored to human ears. What strikes us as unpleasant or shrill may be music to them.

Researchers have found that music stimulates the brain and some are attempting to ascertain whether music can overcome depression or help people with Alzheimer’s since it can reach areas that words do not penetrate. Some melodies have traveled from so far away and so long ago that when we hear them we sometimes think we recognize them in a sort of ancestral memory.

In Robert Browning’s words: Who hears music feels his solitude peopled at once.

The Importance of the Right Words

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

On the TV game show “Jeopardy” a contestant who was a teacher was asked by the host Alex Trebeck whether there was a particular student he was especially proud of. He replied that he had many unique students. Sorry teach! Unique means “the only one”. He could have said many “outstanding ” or “remarkable” students instead. That is also why you cannot be “more unique” or “the most unique”.

On PBS during the fund-raising pledge break one host said: “KQED thanks our viewers.” That too is an offense against the English language. “Our” can only be paired with “we”. What should he have said? “KQED thanks its viewers” or “We at KQED thank our viewers.”

How about redundant expressions or the habit of using two or more words when one would suffice.We constantly hear: “I thought to myself.” Advertisers offer “free gifts”. People “gather together” for “advanced planning” or “alternate choices” People seem to like to make assurances doubly sure so they hit you with too many words These are also called pleonasms.

Many expressions have become tiresome from repetition:
“Think outside the box.” “Kick the can down the road.”
One particularly annoying phrase that our President, who is otherwise an effective speaker, uses a little too often is “Boots on the ground.” (Where else would you find boots?)

He also has the unfortunate habit of calling people “folks”.
Sometimes it is totally inappropriate. Jihadists are not “folks.” They are vicious individuals.

Why is it so important to speak correctly? Can’t people express themselves the way they would like to? Well, no. When we become sloppy in our speech we lose precision and clarity and the ability to communicate effectively. Fuzzy language is like a badly sharpened pencil or a badly cooked meal.

During World War II, Hitler’s steady advance left England standing alone and defenseless amidst relentless bombings. Churchill’s eloquence gave people support and the courage to go on. His words resonated, comforted and inspired, and people clung to them. They were what kept them going until American help came. This was a turning point in history and words made the difference.

Putin’s Pigeons

flock of pigeons flying


It has become too painful to watch the Russian news “Vesti” on Russia’s state controlled channel 1. It is now the official voice of Russia and no independent news filters through. It has always been slyly Anti-American, rejoicing at every event that depicts the U.S. in a bad light. But recently it has become quite shrill. This is not just the Cold War all over again, it is an Arctic War. Most of the hour is now devoted to Ukrainian atrocities against their own population. Every destroyed house, bombed playground, ruined hospital, fleeing refugee carrying bundles is shown again and again. It even looks like some of these scenes of horror are recycled from the day before. The rest of the world has receded or moved to another planet as far as they are concerned. Ukrainian President Poroshenko is labeled as a Fascist.

Mobs around the world are violently demonstrating against Israel, burning synagogues, shouting “death to the Jews” and “Hitler was right”. But where are the protests, marches and demonstrations against Putin’s aggression in Ukraine? Who is protesting against a downed airliner carrying 298 people who probably did not even know that they were flying over Ukraine at that moment?
Putin is still very popular at home but the winds are shifting and he may start to feel some uneasiness as events start to turn against him. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that Putin’s government must pay $50 billion in damages for using tax claims to destroy Yukos, once the country’s largest oil company. In addition the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg has decided that Russia must pay 251 billion dollars to Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s defunct company for unlawful expropriation in 2003. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released recently after spending 10 years in the Russian prison camps for alleged tax evasion. It is probable that Russia will refuse to pay but in that case the shareholders will try to seize Russian assets in 150 countries around the world. All this comes on top of harsh economic sanctions just imposed on Russia by the US and Europe aiming to restrict state-owned banks from accessing European capital markets and stop the export of arms and technology to Russia.
Meanwhile Ukraine is slowly and painfully reconquering its eastern provinces and is now attempting to recapture the Donetsk area.

All Putin’s pigeons are coming home to roost. What is still not clear is whether all this will harden his resolve to continue his aggression or perhaps cause him to try to change course without losing face at home.