All posts by BirdBrian

The Influence of Seapower Upon History


Are we still doing Soapboxing? The last post here was in May. Well, I hope it’s still around. Here’s my latest effort:

This book has a revered place in the military history literary canon, and is said to have profoundly influenced British, American, Japanese and German naval strategy from World War 1 on. Theodore Roosevelt’s showing of the American “Great White Fleet” from 1907- 1909 is in part attributed to the impact of Mahan’s work.

“The Great White Fleet”

This book can be roughly divided into three parts, so I will divide my review accordingly.

Part 1
The first hundred or so pages truly lived up to the title’s promise: an analysis of the influence of sea power upon history. The oceans are the great commons of our planet, and one of their most valuable utilities to man has been as the cheapest means of transporting goods. Even though the vast expanse of blue may appear homogeneous wherever you look, there are some particular well-worn pathways- by virtue of their directness and the predominant winds and currents, which have been the mainstays for transportation of goods and military force. In examples spanning from the Roman Empire to just before the Napoleonic Wars, Mahan makes his case that control of these trade routes is a vital strategic interest for any nation wishing to assure its prosperity through trade and its security through projection of force.

The narration starts with an analysis of the Second Punic War which shows beyond any question how Roman victory over Carthage was inevitable, once the Roman fleet asserted her dominance over the Mediterranean.

From there, he jumps ahead to the Age of Exploration and the early days of European colonialization. The Dutch and Portuguese made impressive early gains in foreign trade long before the era of British dominance. Dutch traders established footholds in Indonesia, South Africa and Japan, while the Portuguese were active in India and South America.


Both powers failed to grow empires like the British because various factors prevented them from growing and maintaining sufficient military (i.e. naval) force to provide coverage ensuring safe passage, and to drive off competition (or more likely to allow for competition but only on favorable terms).

Part 2
This gets into the period Mahan really wants to examine, from 1660-1783. At the onset, France is the preeminent European military power of the day, but Britain- having no land borders to defend- is free to concentrate all her efforts and resources into developing her navy. Situated as she is between the Netherlands and the open ocean, England recognizes that she can cut the vast Dutch trading empire off from her homelands, if she can dominate the North Sea. The Dutch failure to oppose England in this endeavor can be attributed to both distractions on her land borders which sap vital funds from her navy, and essentially cheapness- a reluctance of the Dutch government to make the short-term investments in her navy which would have paid off so handsomely, if only she were able to meet the English navy on equal terms. What trade concessions and territories (e.g. New York) England can’t extract from the Dutch by force, she eventually takes through leveraged negotiation (e.g. trade and navigation concessions), relegating the Netherlands to a second-rate power by the mid-1700′s.

France proves to be more of a challenge. Louis XIV’s interest in his navy waxes and wanes, and the military fortunes of France fluctuate in exact accordance with Mahan’s thesis. When the French navy is strong, she prospers and enjoys fortune in battle. When the French navy is let to lag in supplies or design, or falls into disrepair or laxity of discipline, French fortunes fall.

Maybe his ministers can be blamed for turning Louis XIV’s attention to draining and ultimately unprofitable land wars in Europe, but Mahan deftly shows how France squandered numerous opportunities to wrest naval superiority from the British during the “Sun King’s” reign. More embarrassing still: once Britain acquires Gibraltar, she begins to assert her interests in the Mediterranean, taking Minorca and Malta as permanent bases of operation, and establishing through the Suez shorter passage to India, where a nascent French East India Company in Madras is slowly overshadowed and beat down.

The British Empire

For most of part 2, England appears to be an unstoppable military/commercial juggernaut, thanks to her mastery of the seas. It is only late in the game when France and Spain- united under the House of Burbon, decide to build up their navies and strike at the maritime source of British power. Spain wins back Minorca, and France successfully assists England’s most populated, most prosperous colony (the United States) in breaking free of the British crown. Mahan shines again as brightly here as he did with the Punic Wars, offering thoughtful analysis on why French naval power, in conjunction with American commerce-raiding, were key to successful revolution.

It is all very satisfying reading up until

Part 3
Seriously, Mahan should have quit around page 350, because the last 180 pages or so only cover a period of about five years, and became ground down in painful detail about British-French wrangling in the Caribbean from 1778-1783.

For some reason, Mahan becomes obsessed here in the tactical minusca of ship-to-ship fighting between wind-driven ships of the line. There is a lot of technical language about ships being leeward, and having the weather gauge, and accounts of battles turning with shifts in the wind… no doubt some readers out there will totally groove on that sort of thing, but it is NO LONGER the discussion promised by the book’s title (i.e. an examination on how sea power has affected the course of history).

Rating them separately, I would award 5 stars to Part 1, 4 stars to Part 2, and 1 star to Part 3. Essentially I recommend you read this book up to around page 350.

After reading this, I think it’s natural to wonder what lessons or observations it has to offer on our present-day world. I have my own biases and worldview, but the issue of China leaps out at me. They obviously haven’t heard of Mahan, or if they have, they haven’t taken his instructions to heart. With over a billion inhabitants, a rocketing economy based on vigorous international trade, and a coastline which provides access to the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea -it seems pretty obvious that China’s current naval power is far smaller than what her interests would demand.

Looking at the state of China in 2014, it seems ridiculous that even today she shakes her fist in impotent frustration at the “rogue province” of Taiwan, and disputed islands in Japan. A Mahanian China would have a robust navy which would long ago have cut Taiwan off from her Western trading partners and brought her into the fold of the mainland provinces.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I wish this would happen. China is a formidable enough frienemy as it is. I’m just saying that it seems only a matter of time that China – like France and Spain before her- smartens up and realizes how much advantage a forceful navy brings a nation. With a decades-long forward presence in Japan, Guam, the Philipines, and more recently Australia, it seems the U.S. anticipates this eventuality.

Looking elsewhere, it seems bizarre to me that there are so many areas in the world which remain plagued by pirates.

One of the basic tenets of Mahan’s views seems to be that a nation must keep the seas free and safe for commerce. In this day and age, with the combined interests of Europe, North America, and East Asia at stake, it seems like it would be a small matter to drive renegade stateless commerce raiders from the world’s oceans. Somebody more informed about this can chime in on the discussion thread, if you will.

And speaking of the Middle East (as I was, tangentially): I believe history will deal severely with Middle Eastern powers who have enjoyed so many decades of rich petroleum trade, but who have not channeled any of these profits into building up their own maritime forces. I have never read anything in the popular press about a Saudi Arabian navy, or a navy of any other Middle Eastern oil exporter. I understand that they have built up their respective infrastructures in other areas, and have extensive cash investments around the world. It just seems that Mahan’s book is so clearly correct in observing how closely a (non-landlocked) nation’s fortunes are aligned with the power and respect which its navy commands. The lesson seems lost on the petrodollar-fueled nations of the Middle East.

Again, don’t get me wrong: I’m not particularly eager to hear about a powerful Saudi navy asserting itself. It’s just that Mahan has made some convincing arguments in this book, and I wonder why they haven’t been more universally accepted.


Tell me something Nhu

I had never heard of Madame Nhu before I came across this book, and that’s too bad, because she’s a fascinating character, and from beginning to end, her circumstances gave her unique “front row seats” to the complicated story of Vietnamese history between the period of French colonialism and the 1975 fall to Communism.

Tran (Nhu) Thi Le Xuan, the titular “Madame Nhu” was born to parents with long, aristocratic pedigrees which extend back to the last Emperor of Vietnam, who lost his kingdom to the French in the mid-1800′s. When the French ruled Indochina, the Chuongs (her maiden name) collaborated, going so far as to convert to Catholicism, and prospered as part of the tiny native Vietnamese landowning Elite. Nhu was born at the tail end of this era, in 1924. When the Japanese drove the French out in World War II, the Chuongs collaborated with them. When the Japanese were in turn driven out, and the French (briefly) returned, fortune nevertheless shone on the Chuongs, as Thi Le Xuan’s husband Dinh Nhu built up his older brother’s (Diem Ngo’s) political career. Through complicated intrigues, Diem would become President of South Vietnam, and Dinh Nhu the leader of his political party and de facto Vice President (who in Vietnam has powers akin to the American Secretaries of State and the Treasury). Diem was a lifelong batchelor, so the very public Madame Nhu came to be regarded as Vietnam’s “First Lady” even though she was technically the Lady Vice President. (“Second Lady”?)

So yes, this is a mercenary, ambitious, Machiavellian family, exhibiting not much in the way of idealism or loyalty… even to each other. When Nhu was First Lady, and her parents the Vietnamese ambassadors to the US, they publicly denounced her just prior to the coup which saw her husband and brother-in-law assassinated.

Most readers won’t actually like any of the characters in this book, but that’s besides the point, isn’t it? The enjoyment I derived from this book came from (1) having a lot of my questions about the genesis of the Vietnam War answered, and (2) boggling at the amount and complexity of cloak-and-dagger intrigues it details. Seriously, some of this stuff is so bizarre, I would have thought it was bad James Bond fan fiction, if author Monique Demery wasn’t such a credible writer.

To give you a little taste of what I’m talking about: the 1963 coup which took down the Diem regime began as a fake coup, engineered by Diem himself, and brother/advisor Dinh Ngo. Diem had been unpopular since a 1962 crackdown on dissident Buddhist monks, which ended in several displays of public self-immoliation (always a sympathy-grabber.) The fake coup was supposed to be controllable, as it would be started and orchestrated by Diem operatives who wouldn’t let it get out of hand. The faux-coup would disrupt commerce and cause general disorder, which would turn public opinion against Diem’s opposition, and which would give Diem an excuse to institute martial law, and a purge of moderates. Great idea, no? The thing is, the CIA knew about the secretly fake coup, and turned one of Diem’s generals into a double agent. So the CIA operated a double-secret REAL coup within Diem’s fake coup. Diem and Dinh Nhu didn’t catch on until the supposedly-rebelling soldiers -whom Diem had secretly ordered to shut down traffic in Saigon- didn’t follow script and stand down to Diem’s police. After a lame attempt to flee, Diem and Dinh Nhu were hunted down and stabbed to death in the back of an armored troop carrier. When Madame Nhu heard the brothers had been assassinated, she didn’t accept the news as real for three months. She assumed (as, actually, my own wife probably would) that he had faked his death, and was probably waiting somewhere for her out of the country.

And that’s just one of two death-faking stories in this book… and only one of three false-flag attacks… and Diem was only in power for nine years! That’s a average of one false-flag event for every three years in power. I wonder if that’s a record. (I am so naïve.)

Oh, did I mention that Diem was put in power by the French, because they expected him to fail? They figured his political inexperience and corruption would mismanage South Vietnam so badly that the public would be clamoring for a (pseudo)return to French (neo)colonial rule.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. This was a family of tenacious survivors, and Madame Nhu was at least as streetwise as her husband and brother-in-law, and maybe considerably more. When a pirate problem on Vietnamese inland waterways became so bad it threatened the economy, Diem and Dinh Ngo were prepared to negotiate. It was Madame Nhu working behind the scenes who convinced them to confront and destroy the underworld pirate/gangsters, which turns out to have been the right decision.

She was tough (love that front cover pic), but also knew how to turn on the charm. Her flirtations with then-VP LBJ were “credited” (if one may use such a positive term) with bringing hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid into Vietnam. That’s just one of many instances in this book when the “Dragon Lady” used her sex appeal to political ends. Obviously, the appellation “Dragon Lady” -with all its racial and gender stereotypical undertones- is problematic, but I’ll leave those discussions for some other reviewer.

No doubt the CIA would have been happy to kill off Madame Nhu along with her husband, but she was fortuitously having a minor operation in the United States at the time (removal of a conjunctival cyst). This saved her life, and she lived as a recluse for the next fifty years, first in Paris, and in old age with one of her sons in a suburb of Rome. Throughout the book, as she is telling Madame Nhu’s life story, the author also tells the parallel story of how this book was researched, and how she came to know Madame Nhu personally. This is not a heavy-hitting scholarly work, but a very readable account of a minor historical figure who probably deserves more attention.

A few unexpected tidbits:

Vietnamese resistance to French recolonializing efforts after World War II were in part the result of Japanese propaganda during the war. Even though Imperial Japanese forces were cruel masters, their Asian solidarity propaganda found purchase among Vietnamese who suffered long under humiliating French colonial rule. For all their evils, the Imperial Japanese broke the myth of unchallengeable European commercial, military, and technological superiority.

One of Madame Nhu’s other brother-in-laws was a Catholic cardinal who “went rogue” and started ordaining bishops without Vatican approval. Eventually he was ousted from the church, when they uncovered a plot by him and some others to elect a second pope who would challenge the sitting pope.

The Vietnam War arguably started with American CIA orchestration of the 1963 coup. There is a long list of reasons why the US wanted to oust Diem and his brother- mostly they were too independent-minded to take uncritical instructions from the US, but also because the Kennedy administration felt that Diem’s regime didn’t project a favorable enough image of what a liberal democracy should be, in contrast to Ho Chi Minh’s regime up in the North. President Diem appeared a bit too opulent and corrupt, and as part of the miniscule Catholic minority, it looked bad when he cracked down on Buddhist monks. One has to wonder whether the crackdown, and subsequent coup, and subsequent Vietnam War would have happened at all, if Madame Nhu’s family had been Buddhist instead of Catholic.

¡Viva la Revolución!

The Counter-Revolution Of Science


Freemasonry and central banks will bring about the apocalypse, of course, but it’s interesting to hear that from a book about the evolution of scientific thought from 1700 to 1825, isn’t it?

The Enlightenment of the 1600′s and 1700′s saw more scientific advancement in the West in the space of 100 years than had been achieved by the preceeding seven centuries. Luminaries like Isaac Newton, Karl Gauss, Edmund Halley, Henry Cavendish, Antoine Lavoisier, and others demonstrated the power of observation and the scientific method to unravel nature’s mysteries. The rapid developments in the natural sciences at this time is sometimes called “The Scientific Revolution” (in the company of the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution). Two important consequences of this revolution were the advancement of technology (applied science), and its stimulation of market capitalism (and its political symbiote, democracy).

With most revolutions, there is a countercurrent of resistance- a counterrevolution. That’s the topic of this book, although it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I figured it would be reactionary forces of the Church, or the feudalism rebelling against Science. According to Hayek, the counterrevolution is represented by social philosophers who embraced, but misapplied the tools of science.

As the natural sciences rocketed by them, so-called “social philosophers” of the 18th century struggled to figure out how the scientific method could advance their own fields. These were the early beginnings of Sociology and Political Science. My apologies to any Sociologists or Political Scientists out there, but you should know this book completely rips into the foundations of your respective studies. I don’t have a dog in that fight, but Hayek makes some interesting observations:

1) The natural sciences tend to observe behaviors of “the whole” (i.e. macroscopic bodies, such as chemical solutions, individual organisms, planets, etc) and to use these observations to deduce information about the “the components” (i.e. microscopic or molecular bodies, such as individual atoms, organs, etc) Conversely, social fields tend to observe the behavior individual persons (i.e. components) to deduce overarching principles about greater society (i.e. “the whole”).

2) One of the premises in studying nature is the assumption of uniformity. Under similar conditions, every hydrogen atom (or whatever) in Wisconsin, in 2014, should be expected to behave exactly the same as every hydrogen atom did in France three hundred years ago. The study of people is much different; observations made about senior citizens in California in the 1950′s may have no relevance to observations about senior citizens in New Zealand in 2000. There can be no assumptions of uniformity when dealing with people, cultural values, social mores, etc… which is one of the things which makes “social philosophies” so interesting, but which may lead to flawed conclusions, when rigorous scientific methods are applied. Even the same individual may behave differently, if observed at different times. People are capable of illogical, novel, and inconsistent behavior -a complication which the natural sciences has never needed to control for.

3) Context. One of the great breakthroughs in science has been the practice of making objective observations about phenomena. Observers try to completely divorce themselves from extraneous associations which tend to complicate the formation of hypotheses. For example, when Newton describes the behavior of masses in motion, it doesn’t particularly matter whether the mass is a stone or a box full of apples, etc. When studying the behavior of people, it is impossible to remove cultural context from the study, because behaviors are shaped by all sorts of associations which are in part the SUBJECT of the study.

Well, that’s interesting and all, but so what?  Who cares if humanistic studies aren’t as well-suited to scientific analysis as the natural world?

That’s what the second half of the book is about. Hayek develops his thesis that it was the misapplication of scientific thinking (or “scientistic thinking”, as Hayek calls it) which led influential “social philosophers” like Henry Saint-Simon, Auguste Compte (“Father of Modern Sociology”), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to come to grotesque and flawed conclusions about the nature and fate of mankind. Worse still, just as technology is the practical application of hard science, social policies, “social engineering”, governance, propaganda/advertising, and studies of social manipulation are the practical application of social sciences. Resting as they do on a flawed foundation, Hayek takes issue with how these fields have developed.

The idea of looking at individuals as uniform components of a “whole” (society) drew their philosophies away from Enlightenment ideals of individualism and liberty, and towards a worldview where individuals were themselves only consequential as beign part of a medium for greater historical principles to manifest. Saint-Simon’s utopianism envisioned a society based entirely on the applied scientific principles of scientistic social philosophy… policies and laws were elements of “social technology”, or applied social science, aimed at achieving “scientifically objective” social good (whatever that could possibly mean), with no regard for the desires or aptitudes of the individual, or for cultural values science could not incorporate or account for. What we end up with are grand social engineering schemes, which by their very nature cannot help but be authoritarian.

Sure enough, Hayek links the scientistic misunderstanding of man to 20th century totalitarianism, by showing how profoundly Karl Marx was affected by Compte, Hegel and Saint-Simon. To a lesser degree, “secular humanism” and other philosophical spinoffs of scientistic Sociology are observed in the liberal democratic/capitalistic West.

It’s fascinating stuff… a bit out of my area, and very dry reading in parts, but worthwhile food for thought. I’m sure some of this is bound to be controversial, but don’t expect me to respond to comments below; I’m not sure how I feel about parts of this book, and I’m definitely not versed in it well enough to engage anybody in debate. Just read it and post your own review.

Oh yeah- the part about Freemasons and central banks bringing about the apocalypse: it’s veiled, but it’s in there.

If you like that sort of thing…


Niagara 1814: America Invades Canada - Richard V. Barbuto

As it is, the War of 1812 is a barely-remembered chapter of American history. If it is recalled at all, the most prominent images are the British burning of Washington DC (including the White House), and the battle of Ft McHenry, as memorialized by the Star Spangled Banner.


But there was an entire other theatre in that war: the Western theatre, which in those early days of the Republic referred to the Great Lakes region. War hawks in Congress dreamt of glory, and imagined a campaign in which the US could wrest all of Canada from British hands, more than doubling our nation’s land area. This book is dedicated to examining that fight.


One might be forgiven for thinking this book was written in present day, and that it contains thinly-veiled commentary on U.S. adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the ingredients are there: war-hawk Congressmen who had themselves never fought in the military, yet were eager to gamble the lives of their fellow countrymen;  an ill-conceived war of aggression on foreign soil; and an American public who gradually became less enthusiastic as the conflict ground on.  …But no, this book was written in 1999 by a thoughtful and apparently impartial retired Army former Lt.Col, (Richard Barbuto) who presents the material in a meticulous and dispassionate style.




What I enjoyed most was Barbuto’s thorough discussion of how the conflict was shaped by geographical factors.



British forces were supplied solely through their one unassailable North American port, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Troops, munitions, and food were shipped down the St. Lawrence seaway to strongholds in Quebec City and Montreal (the real prizes American warhawks coveted). There were very few roads west of Montreal at that time, so further projection of power depended on shipping on the Great Lakes- which was disputed by the American Great Lakes fleet, ably (for the most part) led by Issac Chauncey. As one proceeded Westward, British supply routes became more and more tenuous.


American forces were much more diffuse, and better developed in the West. Thus, the US faced no such limitations. This advantage decided the battle of Ft Erie, and kept the Great Lakes west of Buffalo NY firmly under American primacy (with the temporary embarrassing exception of a needless surrender of the American fort in Detroit, 1811).


A few factors helped balance the equation in favor of the British:


1) American forces comprised a much smaller percentage of “regulars” (i.e. full-time active duty soldiers). Most soldiers were short-term (usually from 6 months to 2 years) volunteers with no former battle experience.   In contrast, the British North American army was composed nearly entirely of full-time professional soldiers, who had been unified, disciplined, and battle hardened in the recent ongoing Napoleonic Wars.


2) For reasons not entirely explained in this book, the British seemed to have much better relations with the local Native Americans, who fought on the British side in much larger numbers than they did for the U.S.  Indian guides with their knowledge of local geography, flora, and fauna provided priceless advice to British commanders traveling overland, along the northern shore of Lake Ontario.


3) American leaders- particularly those aforementioned Congressional war hawks- failed to take into account  the attitudes of the Canadian populace. After the Revolutionary War (only 35 years prior) British loyalists moved en masse to Canada. Thus, the larger portion of Canadians ranged from indifferent to rabidly hostile toward American invaders. When (U.S.) Gen. Jacob Brown landed his forces on the Niagara peninsula, the opposing (British) Gen. Gordon Drummond had little need of spies to assess the Americans’ numbers and movements; average Canadian citizens were willing and able to report these to him.


This is probably the largest strategic flaw behind the American attempt to conquer Canada:  whereas it may have been reasonable to imagine that the U.S. could conquer Canada (e.g. -if only the Napoleonic Wars had lasted a little longer, tying up the bulk of British military power in the European theatre), it was completely unreasonable to imagine that America could ever HOLD Canada.  It was simply too large a landmass for our nascent military to occupy, indefinitely, in the face of Canada’s openly-hostile population.



Having said that, American forces- particularly the U.S. Navy, acquitted themselves admirably, throughout most of the war. The U.S. Navy completely dominated the British in Lake Erie, and fought on par with the British on Lake Ontario, even in the face of superior firepower, when the giant warship St Lawrence  was completed at the Kingston shipworks, towards the end of the war.


The American Army didn’t do quite as well, on the lower Niagara peninsula- where most of the Canadian campaign took place. Part of this is due to the failure of the U.S. Army and Navy to work together. Chauncy failed to support Brown’s defense of Ft. Niagara or Ft. George, and so both were lost to the British.


A lot of tactical blow-by-blow narration describes the Battles of Lundy’s Lane and the defense of Ft. Erie. It’s a bit too detailed for my tastes, but you may be into that sort of thing.


The end of the war contains several cliffhangers:  As soon as Napoleon concedes Waterloo, a massive British force (over 10,000 shock troops) file into Canada, and poise to take the Adirondak region of northern New York State.  It is only through a tactical blunder that British forces on Lake Champlain face the American Navy before the Plattsburgh navy base falls under ground attack. In a devastating route, American Navy vessels obtain a complete surrender of all British forces on the Lake, before turning to support Plattsburgh’s defense with shipfire. (British) Major General George Prevost got a courts-martial for that little incident, which saw the massive British force running back over the Canadian border to reconsider strategies.


This stunning turn of events severely altered the peace negotiations: to that point, the British were demanding a revision of the US/Canadian border further southwards; a change that would have made Maine a Canadian province, along with much of northern New York State and Vermont.


Barbuto touches on actions along the Atlantic coast, to include the burning of Washington, and the defense of Ft. McHenry- but the book is solidly focused on the campaign for Canada. Overall, it is an informative, if sometimes dry, account. I particularly recommend it, if you are native to Buffalo, NY, as a lot of familiar places show up, and some place names have their origins in this era.


The town of Ft. Erie is mostly known today for having the region’s largest strip club, but was the site of a hard-fought battle which was unexpectedly decided by the explosion of an American gunpowder reserve, just as the British were capturing it. The massive explosion killed over 900 British soldiers in one swift blow- a slap which they never recovered from.


Lundy’s Lane today is mostly known for garish Niagara Falls souvenir stores:



but was the site of the largest conflict of the 1814 campaign- an unsatisfying affair which counted as a technical victory for the Americans (having captured more guns, taken a strategically-important hilltop, and having killed more enemy soldiers), but a strategic victory for the British (causing American General Winfield Scott to overextend himself before General Brown’s support units could arrive- resulting in the Americans being unable to hold their hard-fought gains, and ultimately driving them back to refuge in Ft. Erie).




Porter Road in Buffalo is named after the Congressional war-hawk Peter Porter, who asserted that the capture of Canada would take “no substantial effort”, and Williamsville, NY- the upscale area where people with money live in Buffalo today- was the site of the area’s largest military hospital.


Good stuff,  and the best book I know of on this subject.  3.5 stars because the order-of-battle stuff about Lundy’s Lane just goes on forever, and is just a bit too detailed.

Forget everything you THOUGHT you knew about the Imperial court of 6th century Byzantium


NEW! From the mild-mannered historian who brought you The History of the Wars series, Procopius’s disillusioned tell-all The Secret History gives you the lowdown on what was REALLY going on in the palace of Emperor Justinian!

Constantinople’s most-lauded historian pulls off the kid gloves and tells it like it was: the depravity, the corruption, the scandal; NO HOLDS BARRED! Don’t trust the official party-line histories, or an outsider’s opinion; take it from somebody who knew and lived among these rulers, and saw them warts-and-all every day!


Emperor Justinian

Official History says: Nephew of Emperor Justin, and successor to him on the Imperial throne. Best known for the beautiful and enduring buildings he commissioned throughout the capital city, as detailed in Procopius’s adoring book On Buildings.

Procopius says:
Take every bad habit and character failing you can think of, ball them all up into one man, and that’s basically this guy. He acts without thinking, he makes decrees before he has all the facts, he talks about things he doesn’t know, he swears oaths and then doesn’t keep his word, he takes bribes, he always withdraws money from the Treasury and never once makes a deposit to grow the Imperial wealth… he’s just about the worst person you could pick to be an emperor.
His favorite hobbies, apparently, include fucking up anything that’s working correctly, shitting all over Roman traditions, and devising new ways of stealing the choicest estates of the nobility for himself.
He invaded Libya and killed, like, a third of the people FOR NO GOOD REASON!  Those people could have paid taxes, yo!
On another occasion (p.130), he started an unneccessary conflict against the Vandals, in which -by my rough estimate- one million million (i.e. a trillion) innocent persons lost their lives.
Under his administration, the streets of Byzantium aren’t safe. He pretty much doesn’t give a fuck if roving gangs steal the beautiful brooches from upper crust ladies, or threaten fair-minded men and the elderly with daggers. “WTF do I care? I’m JUSTINIAN, bitches! Ain’t no skin off my nose.”
Also: For some reason- God only knows why- he has a particularly devoted following among partisans who call themselves “The Blue”. They’re a bunch of lawless hoods, who fuck other men’s’ wives and sons, but Justinian could give a rat’s ass about that. It’s easy to spot Blues on the street, because they are known by their favored hair style. Here, let me describe it to you (p.72):

”The hair  on the front of the head they cut right back to the temples, allowing the growth behind to hang down to its full length in a disorderly mass, like the Massagetae. That is why they sometimes called this the Hunnish style.”

Sound familiar?

Yeah, that’s right; Justinian was huge with the mullet crowd.




Empress Theodora

Official History says: Loving wife of Justin, and a strong co-ruler of the Empire, Theodora was also possessed of a legendary beauty which was admired throughout the known world.  (Admittedly, it doesn’t come across so well in mosaic.)

Procopius says:
When she gets in one of her moods, clear out, because she’s been known to have servants’ tongues cut out for no reason. She had her best friend’s son tortured just because it suited her fancy. She had a dungeon constructed beneath her living quarters, where she had numerous people- citizens off the street, former friends, government advisors- you name it- detained… some of them for years.  One of her husband’s trusted councilors was locked up in a pitch black maze there for two years. Servants would occasionally throw meat inside, like he was some kind of animal, but everybody was forbidden to speak with him.  She forbade anybody to ask about his whereabouts, or how he was doing, so after a while, people kind of assumed he died down there. Then, one day –out of nowhere- she commanded the Master at Arms to go down and find him, and if he was still living, to give him his freedom. The poor guy was filthy and emaciated, and nearly insane from the isolation, malnourishment, and the general way he had so suddenly been mistreated. The palace staff washed him off, gave him fresh clothes, and sent him home- where he died two weeks later.
Theodora pretty much co-ruled with her husband Justinian, and was every bit as corrupt and capricious. She and he used to have a sort of good cop/bad cop act they’d do, where if they wanted to steal a nobleman’s land, one of them would call him to the palace, and say “[my spouse] is furious with you! I don’t know what you did. [s]he wants to have you hanged this very afternoon! Arrange your affairs, because this is your last day on Earth.”  The nobleman would be crazy with fear, wondering what he did, and would beseech them to go find out what the misunderstanding was. They’d come back and say [s]he is mad with rage, but I convinced him[/her] to spare your life if you donate to him[/her] your lovely villa on the lake (or whatever). The nobleman would gladly sign it over, and even thank them for sparing his life. Then Justinian and Theodora would have a good laugh over what a sucker the nobleman was, and set about impounding his estate.
Oh, did I mention what a slut Theodora was?  Yeah-  Antonina had nothing on her!  Judge for yourself, here are some excerpts from the book:
True except:

“There was not a particle of modesty in the little hussy, and no one ever saw her taken aback: she complied with the most outrageous demands without the slightest hesitation, and she was the sort of girl who if somebody walloped her or boxed her ears would make a jest of it and roar with laughter; and she would throw of her clothes and exhibit naked to all and sundry those regions, both in front and behind, which the rules of decency require to be kept veiled and hidden from masculine eyes.
She used to tease her lovers by keeping them waiting, and by constantly playing about with novel methods of intercourse she cold always bring the lascivious to her feet; so far from waiting to be invited by anyone she encountered, she herself by cracking dirty jokes and wiggling her hips suggestively would invite all who came her way, especially if they were still in their teens. Never was anyone so completely given up to unlimited self indulgence. Often she would go to a bring-your-own-food dinner party with ten young men or more, all at the peak of their physical powers, and with fornication as their chief object in life, and would lie with all her fellow diners in turn the whole night long, reducing every last of them in copulation to exhaustion, even if they be thirty or more; and even so she could not satisfy her lust.”

Later in the text…

“And though she brought three openings into service, she often found fault with Nature, grumbling because Nature had not made the openings in her nipples wider than is normal, so that she could devise another variety of intercourse in that region.”

Um…. yeah.
…Still, I have to admit: she was pretty hot.




Official History says: Badass Roman General, sometimes called the “Last Roman General”, he was first councilor and eventually heir to Emperor Justinian.

Procopius says:


Here’s the man who showed it’s possible to be a tough-guy Roman General and STILL manage to catch the late train to Loserville! He adopts a son,  Theodosius, whom his slut wife Antonina immediately proceeds to fuck in every room of the palace, even giving the servants a free sex show. (Trust me; watching Antonina get it on goes with the territory of living in the palace. I think we’ve all been extras in her personal porno shows, at one time or another.)  When the cuckold General CATCHES HER IN THE ACT, she explains it away to his satisfaction!

WAAA?!?!? How do you find mother and son naked between incestuous sheets, and allow it to be “explained away”?!!???  What could she have possibly have said?  “He was just helping me measure the inside of my vagina????” Nope. No way.

Sad to say, the ball-less wonder Belisarius would do any, any, ANY thing to avoid confrontation with Antonina. As a result: he plays her fool as she rides bone with every willing dick in Byzantium.

In one particularly horrible incident, a servant has sympathy on him, and shows him proofs of another infidelity. When he comes to Antonina with the evidence, she twists his mind with magic, to the point that he agrees to have the servant’s tongue ripped out and ground into fish food, for telling him such lies. I don’t need to tell you: the servant was honest.

Later, once General Beliserius had been completely sissified, Empress Theodora and Antonina devised a plan to strip him of his wealth. Theodora made it known he had fallen into her ill favor, and that she was resolute he should be executed. He hid in his chambers, shaking like a child and crying. Then she dispatched a letter to him, saying that Antonina had interceded on his behalf, and convinced her (Theodora, that is) that he should be allowed to live. Theodora says she reluctantly agreed, but on the condition that he becomes Antonina’s slave, and sign all his wealth over to her. With tears of gratitude for his life, the pathetic shell of a once-great man eagerly did so.  How do you respect something like that?

Ultimately, his circumstances in marriage were so well known, even slaves and eunuchs would laugh and mock Belisarius to his face, so he volunteered to resume his services as a General, and went off to  fight the Ostrogoths in Italy. He did so at great peril to himself, just to be away from the embarrassment of life in the Imperial court. Sadly, his skills as a General  had eroded, from the many years living in luxury in the capital city, so he had little success.  In five years trying, he achieved not a single victory.

Oh, and he was a shitty father too: he let his adopted son Theodosius harass and belittle his biologic son Photeus, to the point Photeus left town.




Official History says: Adoring wife and faithful advisor to General Belisarius.

Procopius says:

This ungrateful little gold digger was a prostitute from the earliest possible age, and gave herself up to no less than three of the most obscene vices imaginable… two of which I can not even profane these pages to describe to you!  Given her kaleidoscope of sexual depravities,  it should be no surprise to find incest on her menu as well. That’s right; she whiled away many an afternoon in the palace, balling her stepson, Theodosius. But of course her infidelities extended well beyond him; by all accounts, she saw more ass than Mick Jagger.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the little hussy was a comedienne! That’s right; her parents were in the theater, and she used to get on stage and tell JOKES for the audience’s pleasure!  If popular rumor is to be believed, she was also friends with magicians. What does THAT say about a person’s character?!



Emperor Justin

Official History says: A swashbuckling adventurer, folk hero, and maybe-pirate in his younger days, he trod an unlikely course to the Imperial crown. Uncle to Emperor Justinian, his successor.

Procopius says:


Couldn’t even write his own name on official documents.

A doddering old fool by the time he finally attained the imperial throne; his best days were WAY behind him. They shoulda’ given it to somebody else…

PLUS: married to a former slave… and not even just any slave, but a FOREIGN SLAVE, Lupicinia!!

Is this the best we can do for Emperor? Gimme a fuckin’ break.




From Classical Antiquity.





Alaska: good, but try Hawaii first


If you only read one Michener book, read Hawaii. If you decide to read a second, read this one. Full disclosure: the other Michener works I’ve read so far include Tales of the South Pacific, Return to Paradise, Sayonara, Chesapeake, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, and Hawaii.

So what makes it so good?

This is the history of Alaska told across the span of 29,000 years, from the first Siberian tribespeople crossing the Bering Sea, up to present day. For the most part, it is the history of the unglamerous and mostly unsung; men and women hoping for riches, to be sure, but usually lucky and grateful to merely survive in this challenging environment. Michener selects excellent historical highlights to give us a sense of Alaska: Siberian tribesmen fleeing community strife, Russian exploration of the Aleutians, 18th century New England whalers, gold rush boomtowns along the Yukon River, Eskimo villages along the Northern slope, salmon fisheries in the southern panhandle, bush pilots and dislocated Depression-Era Minnesotan farmers in the central interior, and the oil boom of the 1970′s.  Historical fiction really shines when it comes to places like Alaska. Compared to say, France, there isn’t that much actual recorded history. Indigenous peoples didn’t write their history down, and Western cultures haven’t been there very long (300 years or so), or in very great numbers.  Historical fiction can at least give readers a sense of the place and its past, even if it can’t offer real events, names, or places.

first appearance of British fur traders, in the 1700′s

Fundamental to Michener’s writing is an understanding that true accomplishment- whether the contruction of lasting institutions, or enduring wealth, or momentous social change- comes only at the hands of determined and enterprising individuals who take risks, make sacrifices, work intellegently, and enjoy instances of pure luck. While the overall narration is one of economic and social development, not everyone meets with success. Accidents, the unforgiving physical environment, and human calamity beset these characters, and some do not recover. The stunning and unexpected deaths of Jeb Keeler and Buck Venn drive this home powerfully.

Russian settlement in Sitka, Alaska- 1800′s

Going beyond mere mechanical storytelling, Michener deftly outlines philosophical aspects of settlement- particularly in the 1800‘s. On one hand, trade and development could only begin with adventurous, entrepaneurial spirits, working independently …free of micromanaging government or corporate home offices. This is the “producer-as-hero” motif which Ayn Rand tends to overdo. Whereas Rand makes her producer/heros akin to infallable superbeings, Michener recognizes their human failings; many of his producers are misfits, either aloof of mainstream society (e.g. Mr Klope in Dawson City), or disenfranchiesed on the grounds of social taboos or legal trouble (e.g. Missy Peckham). For them, Alaska was a a fresh start in a land culturally and physically remote from the rest of the world.

Rugged, self-reliant figures carve out empires for themselves here, according to their own rules, and guided by self-interest. This view romanticizes Libertarian aspects of frontier life; but Michener tempers it well with the downside of lawlessness: gangs and renegades like ‘Soapy’ Smith terrorized honest citizens like Tom Venn. Michener’s delivery of these issues elevates the entire book above mere recitation of historical facts. It becomes what I think most historical fiction aspires to be: not just informative and entertaining, but actually thought-provoking and germane to our current place in history.

Alaska was published in 1988, late on in James Michener’s career, when his experience and craft were at their peak. Despite its heft, it reads fast. In fact, I would place it on par with Hawaii for readability. Hawaii comes across maybe slightly better due to the author’s obvious love for the subject; he had personal ties to the Islands. Alaska, however is probably the technically superior book. I believe it juggles more characters and storylines, yet maintains readability. I think this must be a testament to Michener’s growth as a writer. As it follows multiple generations of characters through a wide geographic area, Alaska’s transitions are smoother than Hawaii and Chesapeake‘s. Those earlier works felt more compartmentalized in time and space… characters would play out their drama, and then the close of their era would end each chapter.

Alaska seems to have more linkages, fewer discontinuities. Take, for example, the story arc of Cidaq: her movement from the Aleutians to Sitka early in life transport the story’s physical setting, and then her life in Sitka raising her son (Arkady) moves the timeline smoothly into the next generation. Also (and this is a minor point, but it impressed me): there is a smooth shift in narration from Kendra Scott to the Japanese mountainclimbers when they pass, unknowing, in an airport. In his earlier, less sophisticated works, it seems like Michener would probably have ended Scott’s chapter and started anew with the Takabuki storyline. This felt smoother.

Climber on Denali (highest mountain in North America)

The four detailed maps are mostly sufficient to support the text, which is an improvement over past Michener works. Better still, pages vii-viii of the foreword lay out clearly which elements in the story are fictional, and which are faithfully-depicted historical fact. Every work of historical fiction should have this. If an author wants to mix the historic record with fiction, I’m willing to grant a lot of artistic license, but at some point, I want to be able to sort out which was which. It can be fun to read historical fiction in preparation for travel, but you don’t want to be the idiot at the back of the tour group, asking “Can we see the place where Luke Skywalker and those peasants stormed the Bastille?”

Splendor in the Moss: Shenanigans in the GIUK Gap

The context of this novel is that it was published in 1948, when Hiroshima was a fresh memory, and the old alliances of World War II were giving way to the new ones of the Cold War, in which Iceland became vitally important to the West’s containment strategy towards the Soviet Union.

By controlling the “GIUK Gap” (Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap), the West could keep the Soviet Northern and Baltic fleets out of the Atlantic.  Powerful Britain could be relied on to cover the gap from the Scotland to Iceland, but a NATO (read: American) naval base was needed in either Iceland or Greenland to cover the rest of the gap. Iceland’s existing infrastructure and comparatively more welcoming climate made it the far more attractive option.


Thus, immense political and economic pressure fell on Icelandic leaders to agree to a base… the titular “Atom Station” (i.e.  a platform from which an atomic war could be started). The Icelandic population, however, was not enthusiastic. For one thing, a NATO base was regarded as an assault on their sovereignty, and it was thought that it endangered the country by elevating it to a high-priority nuclear target. Furthermore, Iceland had attempted to remain neutral in World War II, but was invaded by Britain in 1940, and occupied throughout the war by British and Americans.  (Aside: it’s popular to say that no liberal democracy has ever invaded another liberal democracy, but clearly this example disproves the theorem.) The occupation was punctuated by a lot of friction between locals and the foreigners, so the prospect of a permanent American presence was decidedly unwelcome.

The domestic politics of this controversy is the backdrop of the story, and a lot of reviews of this novel consider it to be political commentary.  Author Halldór Laxness- a self-identifying Communist at the time of the writing-  had been a critic of the U.S. naval base in Keflavik, so it’s probably fair to read the book bearing that in mind.

But the Cold War has been over for twenty years, and the U.S. naval base in Keflavik was completely decommissioned in 2008, so I found myself drawn to some of the more enduring themes in this short, thoughtful novel. The story follows twenty-one year old Ugla (pronounced “Ooog-lah”, according to the preface) from hard times in her small Northern village of Eystridalur to a maid position in the Reykjavík mansion of an Alþingi (i.e. Icelandic parliament) member, Dr. Arland. Through her eyes, traditional sensibilities are sharply contrasted with the cosmopolitan moores of Reykjavík.

At first, I thought this was going to be a very clichéd set-up where the poor girl raised the with simple, unassuming wisdom of time-honored custom sees through the materialistic, shallow decadence of the city folk… sort of an Icelandic Heidi maybe. There is some of that, but it is balanced by persuasive counter points.  The Arland kids run wild, get drunk, steal things, sleep around, and (SPOILER: one of them ends up with an unwanted pregnancy. )  It’s a disgrace, yet Ugla’s memories and experience gradually reveal that no debauchery in the city is without a counterpart back in the North country.  At first, she is repulsed at Reykjavíkers who seem to lack pride (i.e. self-respect), a sense of cultural heritage, and the convictions of a traditional upbringing, but when she visits Eystridalur after a taste of the city, she sees how these very things, taken to an opposite extreme, hinder her village and keep it in a poverty which suddenly doesn’t seem so noble.

Rural Iceland with traditional sod roofs.

There are a lot of interesting social class contrasts here too. The Arland family is spoiled and wasteful, but also cultured and sophisticated. They play Chopin and other refined foreign music on the piano, quote poetry and listen to jazz, but they don’t even know any of Iceland’s own glorious sagas- some of the oldest and most dramatic literature in all of Europe. Their eagerness to embrace all things foreign and cosmopolitan at the expense of their own cultural identity is tragic to her “true Nordic” values… yet she grudgingly admits that Chopin is beautiful, and is secretly jealous she can only play a few simple church tunes on the harmonium.

Modern Reykjavík

Apart from the topical issue of Iceland’s role in NATO,  The Atom Station examines more general themes about corruption and hypocrisy in a representative democracy.  I haven’t read Kazuo Ishiguro’s  Remains of the Day, but the vehicle of using a domestic servant’s gradual disillusionment with [her] ruling-class employers makes it a natural comparison. The Atom Station was written over thirty years before Remains of the Day. I wonder whether it was one of Ishiguro’s influences.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable read; a snapshot of a nation in transition, but also the more timeless story of The Country Mouse and the City Mouse set in fascinating and beautiful Iceland.

Öxarárfoss waterfall, Iceland


Stalinism + Cancer: A surprisingly uplifting book

All the horrors of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union fall away when cancer enters one’s life. Its impact on daily existence is much more immediate than any political system’s.

The Cancer Ward explores how the disease transforms the lives of ten men on the oncology ward of a small hospital in Uzbekistan in 1955… but it is not a “medical drama”. That is to say, its plot does not focus on the process of making diagnoses or rendering treatments, and there is no sense that the author is enamored with the exoticism of medical hardware, or awed by the staff’s knowledge and training.  What this really is, is a story about the humbling and equalizing power of serious illness. The main characters comprise a mix of cultural, ethnic, and social-status backgrounds, representing all walks of Soviet life. They would have never come in contact with one another, but for their disease. Now, facing death (Vadim’s melanoblastoma) or debilitation (Dyomka’s amputation), they grow to know one another and depend on each other for support.

There are no earth-shaking plot twists here, and no life-or-death high drama (i.e. no one-in-a-million surgeries, no risky experimental drugs with a slim chance of complete remission) instead, life is a boring grind of radiation treatments in front of a dull humming metal box. Despite the lack of “action”, the novel is a showcase for Solzhenitsyn’s skill in creating memorable characters and exploring what they do in these most difficult circumstances.

Aleksi suffers rectal cancer, and looks back on a life of quiet sufferring under the totalitarian system. An intellectual who kept his criticisms to himself, either to avoid “rocking the boat”, to benefit his career, or to protect his family from adverse consequences, He now contemplates how the system never did change for the better, despite his hopes. He considers the bleak future, with its promise of continued oppression for his children, stretching out indefinitely, and wonders how things might have been different if he had found the courage to say something.  Anything. Could he have made a difference, or is he just torturing himself? Who could ever know?

The point is, this is the sort of tough appraisal of one’s life which cancer forces on people. Another character, Yefrem, has an unnamed, but fatal diagnosis. After a long career as a hard-edged pragmatic upper-level bureaucrat, he wonders what it was all for. Three decades spent pouring over production quotas, fixing industrial equipment rotation schedules, answering to overseers in endless committee meetings… how did this become the stuff of his brief walk on planet Earth? With a few months left, he picks up Tolstoy and begins to read.

Meanwhile, Friedrich- ever loyal to the Party, refuses to let cancer invalidate his past. In a way, this is his own way of defying his diagnosis: refusing to let it change his mind, however much it is changing his body.

Please don’t think Cancer Ward is continually ponderous and gloomy; there are some lighter moments. Main character Oleg rebels against his stomach cancer the best way he knows how: with a life-affirming effort to bed beautiful nurse Zoya… and later, to do the same with the more sophisticated Dr. Vera Kornilyevna. For her part, Vera is a complex character who raises some important questions about maintaining an appropriate professional distance from patients.

Ever politically-minded, Solzhenitzen uses these men as vehicles to explore aspects of Soviet life, but he never allows the commentary to overpower his handling of the characters (contrast: Ayn Rand).  The Cancer Ward is considered semi-autobiographical, in that it draws heavily from Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences with cancer in his forties, which kept him incapacitated for almost a year during a period of imprisonment on political charges. The novel is at its best when showing how cancer recasts one’s priorities, particularly the last several chapters, which follow Oleg after his discharge from the hospital. It is here that Solzhenitsen so artistically renders the world transformed through the eyes of patient who has battled for his life. The ideas of “simple pleasures” or a sense of wonder at the world around us do not seem trite or cliche; they are embraced with a deeply-felt sense of gratitude. The gift of being allowed to exist one more day is not taken for granted by somebody who very nearly had it taken away.


Solzhenitsyn from around the time he was being treated for cancer.