All’s Well That Ends Well: Torture by a “Strong” Nation

Oft expectation fails, and most oft there

Where most it promises; and oft it hits

Where hope is coldest, and despair most fits… – William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well (2.I.145-47)

Article 1 of the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CAT) (United Nations, 1984, 1987), which was signed by the United States in 1988 and ratified in 1994, defines torture during interrogation as:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession…when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity (p. 1)

Study after study shows that torture does not work and affects the victim as much as the torturer…don’t take my word on it…go do a minute Google search and you will discover that people will say and admit anything…real…fake… when electrodes are attached to the scrotum or they are subjected to an almost real sensation of drowning (waterboarding). For thousands of years men for personal or governmental gain have tortured other men. For thousands of years the results has been a mixed (and electrocuted) scrotum bag of maybe the truth…maybe the false…maybe a “dear God I will tell you whatever you wanna hear just don’t pull another fucking fingernail out with your pliers!”

Senator John McCain…a victim of torture by the North Vietnamese while a POW recently stated on the floor of the Senate:

“They [Americans] must know when the values that define our nation are intentionally disregarded by our security policies, even those policies that are conducted in secret…They must be able to make informed judgments about whether those policies and the personnel who supported them were justified in compromising our values; whether they served a greater good; or whether, as I believe, they stained our national honor, did much harm and little practical good.”

What if the reported 119 individuals tortured by the CIA (according to the upcoming Senate report on CIA torture) gave one good lead? Would it be worth it? Would 5 good leads on planned terrorist attacks was the result of this torture? How does one do a cost-benefit analysis of torture? To conduct such an analysis one would need to further know what information was gained through CIA torture, and how that information was used. Unfortunately, when the giant report (with numerous parts redacted due to classified information no doubt) I feel that we will not see the benefits or leads that led to thwarted torture, instead we will read how torture victim after torture victim said whatever was necessary to save themselves. The ones…the CIA, the President(s), the military…are the only ones who will truly know how beneficial this American government-sanctioned torture was.

In the end, if the torture has led to some leads that stopped a terrorist attack…then a majority of Americans will stand happily by and sleep peacefully knowing that they are protected. But what is the cost of being secured by men who will do evil in their idea of “defending freedom?” Is America, the unilateral doer of all things globally, truly a strong nation?

Philip Bobbitt states that the War against Terror has some widely and tenaciously held assumptions:

  • that terrorism has always been with us, and though its weapons may change, it will remain fundamentally the same – the weapon of the weak seeking to wrest political control from the strong;
  • that because terrorism will always be with us, there can be no victory in a war against terror;
  • that because there is no enemy state against which such a war can be waged, the very notion of a “war” on terror is at best a public relations locution, like the “war on drugs” or the “war on poverty”;
  • that terrorism cannot be an enemy, the subject of warfare, because it is a method, a technique, even if a sinister and brutal one;
  • that because terrorism is only a means to an end – that is, because it is not distinguished by the pursuit of any particular goal – “one man’s terrorist is another’s man’s freedom fighter”;
  • that the root causes of terrorism lie in conditions of poverty, economic exploitation, neglect of health and education, and religious indoctrination that must be reversed before a war against terrorism can be won;
  • that terrorism is best treated as a problem of crime, by law enforcement officials, and not as a matter for defense departments, which are inappropriate when there are no battlefield lines or armies to confront, and when the context requires constabulary forces and political measures;
  • that if, on the other hand, terrorism is indeed a matter of warfare, there can be no place for the Geneva Convention or other rules of law in war that are applied to conventional conflicts;
  • that good intelligence provides the decisive key to defeating terrorism;
  • that terrorism will not flourish in democracies;
  • that more power governments gain, the weaker the civil liberties that belong to the public;
  • that terrorists “win” if they are able to force governments to enhance their powers of detention, surveillance, and information collection  or if the citizenry significantly modifies its everyday behavior;
  • that twenty-first century terrorism is the result of a clash of international cultures when medieval and backward worlds confront modern secular societies;
  • that confronting hostile states can only make the Wars against Terror harder to win because it diverts resources and wins fresh adherents for the terrorist enemy;
  • that the threat of terrorist attacks comes from the states of the Middle East or failed states in remote regions;
  • that if the jihadist movements are defeated, the threat of terror will subside, at least for the foreseeable future;
  • that terrorists will be confined to low-technology weapons for the foreseeable future;
  • that because they will be so confined, terrorists therefore pose at most a modest threat to the stability of modern societies;
  • that we should address this threat by concentrating on the likeliest assaults rather than preparing and organizing for the remote possibility that terrorists will pull off a truly catastrophic attack;
  • that the forces required to deal with terrorists are completely unrelated to the forces required to deal with natural disasters;
  • and, above all, that Wars against Terror really have nothing to do with such state-centric activities as ethnic cleansing and genocide or the proliferation and acquisition of weapons of mass destruction or nonpolitical events like power outages, tsunamis, famines, and other civilian catastrophes.1

The first striking thing about these numerous assumptions Bobbitt makes is the focus on “strong” versus “weak.” With this in mind, one must look at the historical context of the Peloponnesian War…as recounted to us by Thucydides. Athens…rich, imperialistic, philosophical…went to war with Sparta…militaristic and conservative. Two Greek poleis (city-states)…one a naval power (Athens…based on its rich sea trade) and one land power (Sparta…based on its history of young male conscription for its Hoplite infantry)…went to war basically over the age-old desire for societies/states to be the hegmonic power within their area of influence. Though a weak connection, one may argue that America now sits as the Athens of our age…while numerous states orbit within our sphere of influence while rogue nations and terrorist organizations represent Sparta with its strong defense of conservative ideology and their just or unjust feelings of being ignored and treated unfairly by America and its allies.

Terrorists execute prisoners, torture captives…and the Western world is aghast…how dare the “weak” resort to brutality. America tortures terrorists to ensure it gets the information and intelligence needed to protect itself from the barbaric hordes assaulting the Piraeus2 docks and the Phaleric wall.America, like Athens, views itself as a “strong” nation, and as Thucydides states in the Melian dialogue: “…as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”4

What has happened is that the CIA and the presidential administrations “supervising” it have viewed itself as a strong nation and conducted torture and a war against terror with hubris. History is written by victors as the saying goes…and as Shakespeare says all’s well that ends well. We shall see if America’s flagrant disregard to the effectiveness of torture (and potentially the use of drones) will allow it to keep its allies close at hand and its enemies at a distance. Arguably, the strength of America lies in the citizens that take an interest in the actions of its government and approves or disapproves through the ballot box.

1. Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: The Wars For The Twenty-First Century, pp.5-7.

2. Piraeus was Athen’s port and its access to its trade.

3. Phaleric Wall was a defensive line that ran southwesterly from Athens to the sea just south of the Piraeus port.

4. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, p. 352. Melos was an Greek city-state that had refused to join Athens alliance against Sparta…Athens sent emissaries that were executed…thus Athens returned with an army and made the Melians submit because they were weak.

Veterans’ Day…One Suffering and Musing Comrade to His Father and Comrade-in-Arms

“I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them, And the white skeletons of young men-I saw them; I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war; But I saw they were not as was thought; They themselves were fully at rest-they suffer’d not; The living remain’d and suffer’d-the mother suffer’d, And the wife and the child, and the musing comrade suffer’d, And the armies that remain’d suffered.” – Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

“…he was veteran proud, tried and true, he fought till he was black and blue, didn’t know how he made through the hard times, he bought our house on the G.I. Bill, but it wasn’t worth all he had to kill to get it…” – David Allen Coe, “If That Ain’t Country”

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Since 1990 I have always made one call on Veterans’ Day…to my father…a fellow soldier…a fellow comrade-in-arms. We would always exchange our typical greeting of “thanks for your service” and then we would discuss what our plans were to celebrate. Some years my father mentioned some parade or event he was going to attend or participate in…and as he got older he just plainly responded with “I’m gonna go ride one of my horses.” I always made an attempt to get a tee time and play golf. For me I prefer to celebrate my holiday doing something devoid of Veterans’ Day references or meaning. Both of us dealt with our status as veterans in different ways…yet both of us laughed and said it was “our fucking day and we could do what we wanted.” We rarely worried with what others might think of our Veterans’ Day plans. We felt no need to explain ourselves. I usually shun Veterans’ Day events…and definitely avoid any sales greedily associated with the a day meant to honor me and my fellow military veterans.

Both my father and I come from a long line of men who have served. My maternal grandfather was a field artilleryman in World War I and came home blinded in one eye from a German mustard gas attack. I had an uncle who stormed the sands of Iwo Jima. I have a cousin who served in Panama and Desert Storm. My mom had a cousin who was a POW during the Korea War. There is even a Reese buried in confederate grave who left his home and hearth to fight for a lost cause. Soldiers and veterans all…my dad’s and my military service were just two more links in the long chain of our family’s service to our nation.

Tomorrow I won’t be making any calls. My father passed away a couple of weeks ago. Since then I have been busy planning his full military honors funeral at the National Cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina. I won’t be thanking him for his service tomorrow…instead I will continue filling out paperwork to ensure that he is interned at a National Cemetery with the honor he deserves.

I enlisted in the U.S. Army in January 1990 due to being kicked out of college due to way too much beer and not enough college classes. My dad joined the U.S. Army because he was the son of a Alabama sharecropper and his future without military service would have been nothing more than scraping by. Each of us decided to serve because we needed something to better us…to educate us…to teach us how to be men. The Army gave me an undergraduate degree (G.I. Bill) and a Masters degree. The Army gave my dad a life to provide for his family and eventually he got a college degree. Both of us had moved from humble beginnings to men who had accomplished much…and much of it was a direct result of our military service.

One of the things my dad and I used to laugh about was how our military service had given us a lifetime of stories. The kind of stories that were best described as “shit you couldn’t make up.” One of the very first experiences I had…the moment I realized Toto and I were no longer in Kansas…was when I got my first mess hall meal (chili mac of course)…standing outside in the cold rain at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and I turned to the private next to me and asked him where he was from. The reply I got, to the best of my knowledge, was “Baahstan”…I had just met my first Irish-American Southie…I had just just experienced a hallmark of military service and that is how the military throws you in with a bunch of other guys from a million small towns and big cities…places you’ve never been to…or heard of.

One of my dad’s favorite stories was how he used to pull guard duty along the razor-wired fence separating East and West Germany (Fulda Gap) in the late 1960s and how he would exchange cigarettes with East German soldiers he would pass as each of them walked by on their different sides of the fence. In his own small way, my dad participated in military diplomacy at a very critical moment in the Cold War.

As Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, dead soldiers are “fully at rest-they suffer’d not.” I am now my father’s suffering and musing comrade…and I have no one to call to tomorrow and thank or be thanked. Most of us veterans are quite content to quietly go about our holiday and do what brings solace to our hearts…we appreciate the “thanks” and we appreciate the parades…but in the end we all quietly carry our memories and experiences that only our fellow comrades understand.

To all my veteran friends and comrades-in-arms…thank you and I look forward to mustering with you in that final bivouac we all go to when our suffering here ends.

His Autumn: Thoughts As My Father Dies

…and gathering swallows twitter in the sky. – John Keats (last line of “To Autumn”)

The poet John Keats was supposedly “half in love with easeful Death,” and expressed the Romanticism longing for the unattainable. Easeful death is one of the most unattainable of life’s trials. In his poem “To Autumn,” he displays this longing for the unattainable by describing an imaginary ode to the autumn season and telling it of its beauty. Spring represents youth, summer equals young adulthood, autumn is the time of one’s old age, and finally, winter is death. Keats attempts to remind autumn that it too is beautiful. Specifically he writes:

 “Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

Think not of them, thou has thy music too,”

Old age and the coming of winter hangs on the horizon like a dark and barely illuminated cloud. This darkened mass hangs low and foreboding. Cold and crisp winds whip through a tree-shrouded valley. Yellow and red leaves prepare to dance upon the wind as their dying anchors break the bond between limb and leaf.

My father is in the last moments of his autumn as I type this. His rasping breath, his personal death rattle, reminds me of the sound those dying autumn leaves make as the wind shake them…the call of approaching winter. My father’s bond between life and death is coming loose…he is about to float and fly on the wind and be tossed and turned until he drifts lightly to the ground…dust to dust…ashes to ashes…

I sit by his side. I listen to his autumn song. I have silenced my own summer tune. These days, I rarely hear the melodies of my spring. Now is the time for me to hear is last words…his last breathes…his last moments calling out to the hills in joyful noise.

My personal collection of life songs are bound to his. The man I am is the man he raised me to be. All that I have…all that I have gained is a direct result of his teachings. I know my own autumn and winter wait before me…my own personal dark cloud waits beyond his…but now is not the time for me to think of that…now is the time for me to sing my father’s song.

The oldest child of Alabama sharecroppers went on to be a man who owned his own land. A man with no real vocation went on to retire from two professions. A high school drop out who eventually got a college degree. He was an army veteran, with two tours in Vietnam, who found solace and peace in the lives of his children and grandchildren as he settled into his autumn.

My father taught my sister, his grandchildren, and me how to drive…how to ride horses…how to accept responsibility…how to live life as true to ourselves as possible. This man was a true raconteur…this man taught me the art of storytelling. This man never met a stranger…this man never left a person untouched. His smile and crystal blue eyes were infectious. His hands were always hard and calloused from a lifetime of work…yet never were they firm when he touched you. My father may not have been a man of great means…he was a great man.

As I watch him die…as I stand witness to his life and heritage…I feel both a torment and a peace at his passing. His was a great run…his was a life worth living…his life was a glorious masterpiece to be sung in all the seasons.

My father was not a man of poetry. My father was not one to lose himself in literature or the arts…yet he was a man who found beauty in nature, animals, and small children. He may not have ever read or heard of Keats…yet I know he would have completely understood the Romanticism ideal of longing for the unattainable. My father has easily accepted his death though…Keats would have been envious in the manner in which my father approached this final cool days of his autumn.

The last audible words my father spoke to me were “take my boots off”…he laughed as I went to his feet and pretended to remove boots. I guess you don’t need boots when you join the gathering swallows and twitter in the skies.

Selling of Southern Exceptionalism

Exceptionalism:

1. the condition of being exceptional; uniqueness.
2. the study of the unique and exceptional.
3. a theory that a nation, region, or political system is exceptional and does not conform to the norm.
On any sweaty swampy summer Saturday in South Carolina you can watch the wonderful diversity of the South (in reality the diversity of the whole east coast mainly north of South Carolina) mingle and move among the concrete and asphalt that defines and represents “vacation” in the American Southern mind. Myrtle Beach being the prime example of this vacation ideal of the South at play. Along the last paved road running approximately north to south before the sand, one can see high rise beach hotel after beach hotel…with a sprinkling of beach stores and pancake houses. Here where the ocean meets the sand, millions of visitors come to play golf, get sunburned, and consume calorie after calorie of extremely unhealthy food. During the winter, Canadians come down with pasty skin and shorts (even though local South Carolinians are bundled up and bitching about the cold). Late spring through late fall, however, the wonderful mix of the New South converges on Myrtle Beach to eat fried seafood and drink lemonade sold from young (and extremely thin) Russian girls who seem to have been seduced by the beaches as much as the tourists.
Myrtle Beach, unfortunately, is not the easiest place to get to though. It doesn’t have an interstate, and it takes exactly (with typical traffic and no more speeding than 5mph over the posted speed limit) 1 hour and 25 minutes from I-95’s exit 181. Arriving by plane would seem to be the next best choice…but due to the average airfare and the constant merger of major airlines…places like Myrtle Beach can become even more remote. Getting to the beach, the sun, the waves, the golf, the young Russian girls, and the seafood is a true test of a tourist’s determination. Determination though is something that comes easily to the New South tourists.
 Before reaching the Myrtle Beach exit on I-95, tourists (primarily from the north…what resident south of Myrtle Beach is going to travel north to the beach?) cross the North Carolina/South Carolina state line..and they cross with great expectation. If they are new to this trip, they have been seeing sign after sign of a politically incorrect Mexican (Pedro with his mustache and sombrero) extolling the magnificence of place called South of the Border, or SOB for short. SOB started as a beer stand in 1949 and found remarkable success due to the bordering North Carolina county being dry. From there it has grown into a mecca of kitsch and crap. Gas, food, t-shirts, and fireworks are the primary SOB products.
Not only do Myrtle Beach bound tourists stop…but the constant summer caravan of families driving south toward Georgia and Florida clutter SOB’s parking lots. The New South’s tourist spots are not only populated by the actual families born and raised in the South, but it is populated by the families of mid-Atlantic and northern states heading south to enjoy the actual and perceived pleasures of the South and its sandy coast. SOB doesn’t just represent the capitalistic achievement of kitsch but it represents the wonderful, automobile-obsessed, American society that has been running at full speed since the 1950s. One can debate what is truly representative of America…but it seems that a good number of us Americans are quite enthralled with the idea of being represented by cheap crap that is sold at decent prices and displayed in such shops as SOB’s “Hats of the World”…and as my stepson so non-sarcastically informed me was not an actual museum of hats from around the world, but is instead warehouse-sized store that allows you to purchase hats that range from sombreros to beanie caps with propellors.  He wanted to ensure that I was not disappointed…and disappointed I was not. SOB, its hats from around the world, and all its crap entertained me fantastically. Truly, this was a way station for those from near and far as they conducted their annual pilgrimage to the South…the almost religious mecca we Southerners have sold to ourselves and the rest of the country.
 This selling of the South, and its assumed exceptionalism, is almost equal to the way in which Hollywood in the 1950s sold America overseas through its completely inaccurate cowboy movies. This is extremely evident in the fact that the number 2 largest group of visitors to Big Bend National Park in Texas is Germans…and the reason is that the very idea of America to a large part of world is the myth of the American cowboy in the wild west. It doesn’t get more wild west like Texas along the Rio Grande River. As in the mythical selling of America in the 1950s, and the melon-scratching endeavor of trying to explain or describe America…in the 1950s or today…the mythical selling of the South is extremely hard. Defining, with geographical or cultural borders, as nebulous as the South is at best enigmatic.
Defining the South’s borders is a debate of much conjecture and mainly opinion. The South can be reasonably argued as the region below the Mason-Dixon Line, or the former member states of the Confederacy, or areas with a larger than the national average consumption of grits. Additionally, it is hard to define the South geographically and culturally considering the three major historical periods of the American South has experienced. There is the colonial period to the 1930s…by far the longest period and the most enduring in mythical resonance with both modern-day Southerners and others…frontiersmen, plantations, and inbred mountain hollow (pronounced “holler”) cabin dwellers. Then there is the period from the beginning of World War II to the 1980s or so. This period truly opened up the South to the rest of America due to the federal government’s ability to acquire and build cheap military bases, the national interstate system, and the nation’s desire to finally bring them po’folk up from their backwoods ways. This is also the period when the feds decided to go into the Blue Ridge mountains and forcibly remove families and communities so a national park could be formed. Finally, the era of the New South, which is identified with its supposed corporation friendliness by being non-uni0nized and the selling of lake/river/ocean front property to “from elsewheres”…individuals who are not of Southern born and bred heritage but who have flocked to the South in a quest for warmer weather, cheaper prices…to stretching retirement dollars, and economic opportunity.
As the grandson of an Alabama coal miner (maternal) and an Alabama sharecropper (paternal), and the son of two parents born and raised in South just as it was being opened up at the end of World War II, I am intimately aware of the Southern ideal…regardless of the fact that I was raised as an Army brat until I was 13 and 6 years of those 13 were in Germany, I was raised Southern…but being an Army brat is by far more Southern than any other geographical distinction. The Army is known for being, at least mythically and somewhat culturally, a subculture of predominately Southern habits. Many a soldier from someplace other than a southern state tasted grits for the first time upon entering the Army. This of course being, again, due to the Department of Defense’s decision to build and maintain a large number of military bases in the South. Local farmers and their crops…and their tastes was the grocer of the Army in the 1950s and 1960s, thus generations of non-Southern soldiers were introduced to grits.
My Southern bonafides are further enhanced considering the number of places in the “South” I have lived…which based on your own opinion…are either genuine Southern states or, at best, border states with a familiarity to the South. These states include Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, and Washington, DC. Yes DC is Southern…any city that is within sight of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s plantation (now turned)…Arlington National Cemetery…is Southern. This is not even taking into account the prevalence…and marketing…of Southern cuisine restaurants or the city’s location on a swamp. DC is Southern in everything except the ability to hunt and going mud din’. Honestly though, the very nature of arguing for or against DC’s inclusion in the South is a prime example of how hard it is define the South.
The South can’t even truly claim some of its supposed cultural icons… such as barbecue, farming, and country music. Kansas City…a metropolis situated at best in a border/battle state…is known for its barbecue. New Jersey…not even anywhere close to be considered Southern…is a farming state. Finally, Canada and California have populated country dials with their very not Southern sound. If Southerners can’t claim their cultural icons…what can really define the South?
Seems the South and Southerners (imagined or otherwise) have sold itself and its exceptionalism…its specialness and we have all bought it. Imagining or creating a reality is nothing new…especially in the South. Margaret Mitchell imagined the South in her fantasy novel Gone With the Wind…as the Cambridge History of the American Novel states “The South exists as a place of imagination for many writers.” Not only has the South been a place of imagination for writers in the past, but today publications such as Oxford American (published in Arkansas) and Gun & Garden  (published in South Carolina) extol the real and imagined views of the South. Interestingly, Marc Smirnof…a Californian started Oxford American, and the publisher and chairman of the board of the Gun & Garden are both Southerners (South Carolinians) who (as Roy Blount Jr said) had “gone up north” to learn their professions before returning to the South as part of the modern era of the New South revivalism.
Page after page of these well-written, and highly entertaining magazines provide a glimpse of how the South is being sold…and not just by Southerners but Southerner wanna-bees…I am looking at you Mr. Smirnof. Between the pictures 0f and articles on “shrimp gumbo reimagined” and Jack White’s (most definitely not a Southerner considering his birth in and place among Detroit’s punk rock scene) mounting of Nashville’s music throne, there is an endless supply of advertisements for companies and products that sometimes have actual roots in the South. The New South is where not only is lake/river/ocean front property is sold to the highest bidder, regardless of their origins, but the New South is where Southerners will allow anything considered “Southern” to be held aloft as it is some special item or religious totem worthy of examination and exultation. Not only are these Southern “artifacts,” like a biscuits and gravy recipe…and trust me my mother’s biscuits and gravy should be exulted…held aloft, but they are presented in such a marketing manner that they resemble an advertisement about how good we got it down here more than the actual Southern artifact it is. Somewhere along the line we have traded the popular…yet undignified…stereotype of the Barney Fife and Bo and Luke Duke for the imagined Southern stereotypes portrayed in glossy magazines that mix good writing with advertisements for Fiats…I Shit You Not…there is an ad for a Fiat car on page 57 of the latest edition of Oxford American, and the last time I checked, the definition of Southern did not include the ownership…let alone the driving…of a Fiat. (says the guy who drove a 1972 yellow MG Midget in high school…in Tennessee in the mid-1980s)
Of course, owning and driving a Fiat in the South is a perfect example of how you really can’t say what is or isn’t Southern. In the end, the South and Southern is based more on imagined than the realities of our everyday experiences here in the South. It is impossible for me to define the South based on the my limited view (at the time) of my upbringing or life in Fayetteville, Tennessee (my ‘home’town), and comparing it to my wife’s upbringing in Wahalla, South Carolina (they filmed Deliverance there nearby if she hasn’t told you…but she probably has) is near impossible…and as far as I can tell, what these two places have most in common is a distinct small town appeal (or repulsion)…of course that is not truly Southern either considering the number of small towns (with their appeal and repulsion) across America.
 On second thought, driving a Fiat is definitely not Southern by anyone’s definition and that shit is wrong…plain wrong. Unfortunately, what we have is another situation where the imagined place of the South (within the minds of writers and everyone else’s) gets mixed with the reality modern economic necessity…which results in Fiat ads within a magazine that bills itself as “The Southern Magazine of Good Writing.” What we got here in the South is exactly what everyone has in every place and region…people trying to make living, raise a family, and lead an existence that (hopefully) means something to them without being bothered too much…as they drink their sweet tea granita…I have no fucking idea what that is, but here is the online article on it in this month’s Gun & Garden….so obviously it is Southern and all us Southerners drink it…right?

Normandy France Smells Like Lavender and Apple Cider

Normandy, France, smells like lavender…it is grown prolifically. Lavender blooms late May through July in Normandy. The fields, that were once fenced in by hedgerows pop a subtle but beautiful purple…it makes the surrounding grass and trees glisten bright green. Truly stunning to see. The beauty of these lavender fields hide a deeper secret though…a bloody secret. These grand fields of light purple were once the battlefield of Normandy in June 1944.

Lavender field in France
Lavender field in France

Normandy also smells like apples…actually apple cider, because it isn’t until the fall that the apple harvest comes in. I was in Normandy in late May 1997…so the apple trees were still growing small yellow apples…nowhere near ripe…but the smell of apple cider competed with lavender. Seems the Normandy French enjoy apple cider as much as they enjoy decorating their homes and fields with lavender. Every village seemed to have an apple press and cider house. Here is a older, but well-written New York Times article that discusses the sparkling ciders of Normandy and Brittany. Reading it makes my mouth water for apple cider.

Apple trees in Normandy
Apple trees in Normandy

When you are in Normandy you stop and visit the medieval tapestry makers of Bayeux. Castles…made of stone didn’t do very well when it came to insulating from the heat and the cold…primarily the cold. If you lived in a castle…and had enough money…you would buy grand wool tapestries to hang on the walls…they were more than beautiful tapestries…they were way to ward off the cold and an early death of you and your family. When you travel through Bayeux…you go and see the tapestries that have remained.

Bayeux tapestry depicting William the Conqueror's victory at the Battle of Hastings (1066)
Bayeux tapestry depicting William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings (1066)

Some drive further afield in Normandy and see the Cherbourg peninsula. Driving tiny French backroads smelling of lavender and apple cider…small but swift streams are covered with stone bridges. It is glorious in a peaceful, idyllic way. One suddenly understands why the French beret isn’t so odd…and apple cider, baguettes, and cheese seems to be the perfect lunch. Further west you get into Brittany, less populated and with even smaller roads. You really have only one reason to visit Brittany and that is to see le Mont Saint Michel.

Le Mont Saint Michel was originally a small church built in 709AD, followed by an expansion in the 10th century, and finally becoming a monastery in the 13th century. During the French Revolution, the secularist government used it as a prison and troops of the Revolution went through and removed the head off of every Christian statue. This monastery sits upon a rock out in the Bay of Brittany and parking signs (in multiple of languages) inform you that if you park in certain areas at certain times…you might return after your visit to find you car underneath water. Le Mont Saint Michel is breathtaking and full of historical significance. It is a perfect side day trip after you have soaked in the lavender fields of Normandy.

le Mont Saint Michel, Brittany
le Mont Saint Michel, Brittany

But if you go to Normandy…you go for only one reason really. You go to Normandy to walk the D-Day invasion beaches, you go see monuments erected to American soldiers in the villages of Sainte Mere-Eglise and Sainte Lo. You go to see the old and decaying German bunkers (both artillery and machine-gun) of Point-du-Hoc. As beautiful as the lavender fields are, as wondrous as the smell of apple cider, and the stunning beauty of old medieval monasteries are…you are truly there to marvel at the major military operation known as “Overlord”…the Allied invasion of the Fortress Europa. Here in Normandy you marvel at beauty…but in your heart and head…you feel sad…you cry and wonder how such a beautiful place could have been the location of so much death and violence.

All the pictures above are beautiful…but in reality…this is what Normandy looked like to me:

d-day_2

 

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Of course these were not the actual landscape and images before me as I was in Normandy…but this was what I say in my mind’s eye. The death, destruction, and violence of the Allied invasion. As I traveled from place to place soaking up the French spring sun of May…I had a disconcerting feeling that it was all a mirage…a film or layer lain across the landscape to hide the ugly beneath it. All of this ugliness though is removed when you enter the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer…a garden of stones and sculpted hedges and trees. The cemetery sits on a bluff above Omaha Beach…where the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions landed and got chewed to pieces…literally…by German machine-gun fire.

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It was on Omaha Beach that (then) COL George A. Taylor, commander of the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, famously told the huddled men under his command

“There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here.”

When you stand on Omaha Beach and you look up at the bluff…where COL Taylor’s men and thousands of other men lay buried…where the Germans were dug in and waiting, you think only one thing…”my God, how did they fucking have the guts to actually exit their landing crafts and storm this beach?” Part of it was training, part of it was the Allied decision to use the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions. Both were filled with privates with no combat experience…young men who had no idea what they were about to face…and veteran NCOs and officers who knew exactly what they were about to face. The 29th Infantry Division (The Blue and Grey) was a National Guard division with young men from the mid-Atlantic and the 1st Infantry Division had exited the North Africa campaign over a year before and sat in Britain re-arming and getting its ranks filled with fresh soldiers. No one but the senior Allied leaders truly knew what these young men were going to face…in the end, they did get through the stormy waves…across the mine and concertina-wired beaches…up the bluff…and began the long deadly march across Europe. But before they entered Germany…or Belgium…or Holland…or Paris…they had to cross over a hundred yards of bare beach under withering fire…sheep to the slaughter.

I attended the Memorial Day ceremony at the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. I was thanked by a crying French woman…and lavender and apple cider scents hung in the air.

 

Spanish Churches…an Atheist’s view

 “When I started writing, back in the early Seventies, I found I had no vocabulary for describing buildings. I read a couple of books on architecture and developed an interest in cathedrals. I became a bit of a ‘train spotter’ on the subject. I would go to a town, like Lincoln or Winchester, check into a hotel and spend a couple of days looking around the cathedral and learning about it. Before too long, it occurred to me to channel this enthusiasm into a novel.” ~ Ken Follett on writing Pillars of the Earth

Church of El Salvador o de la Transfiguración, La Roda, Spain
Church of El Salvador o de la Transfiguración, La Roda, Spain

This church, which is of unquestionable renaissance architecture, was built between the 16th and 17th centuries, on a gothic temple, on a small hill where there was the castle of Robda, which was demolished by the Catholic monarchs in 1476 [1]…like Ken Follett, I have few words to describe my love affair with cathedrals and churches. The older and more ornate, the more deep the love. This is an odd statement considering I lost my love for the god these grand pieces of architecture stand to glorify. After nearly a decade of European living and travel, I have balanced the seeming dichotomy of being an atheist and loving these houses of worship.

For me, the love of the buildings is opposed to the Christian love of their god. The dedication, the sweat and labor, the millions…vast millions…in today’s dollars, and the spiritual devotion that went into building these beautiful and dominating buildings truly astounds me. Some of these churches, especially the old gothic cathedrals not only cost millions to build, but took hundreds of years to complete. Ken Follett, in Pillars of the Earth, showed how the long march of building a cathedral became the life and heritage of a man, a family, and a village. Building a grand church or cathedral was a commitment…a commitment that outlasted the common laborer and designing architect. It outlasted the vision of the priests who served within its walls…and in some cases outlasted the village around it.

While in Spain, my wife and I spotted the Church of El Salvador o de la Transfiguración (pictured above) while leaving Madrid and headed southeast toward Murcia. This renaissance church sat prominently on a hill overlooking the village of La Roda, Spain. It’s gloriously orange and yellow stones reflected the similar landscape of surrounding Spanish countryside. Even the stores, homes, and apartments of La Roda seemed to don similar shades as if this church was a glowing beacon that was perfectly reflected in the man-made structures surrounding it. We saw it from the road and I guided our rental car through the small and winding streets of the village to final park [2] a mere 100 yards from the steps that marched up to this glorious church.

This was my wife’s first visit to Europe and her first experience with an old European church. She had seen my love for cathedrals and churches in Boston and New York, but this was the first time she saw me walk humbly into a grand European house of worship. She had listened to me ramble in pedantic terms about the architecture and labor of  building cathedrals…now she was experiencing her own visit to an old church of Europe…sort of like sitting down to tea with an old lady who is often ignored…but once engaged is full of wonderful stories. Taking a moment to engage these churches allows one to see a time and place that perfectly reflects the love and dedication in the heart of the community that built it and now maintains it. I specifically told my wife “Everyone in this village attends here, they meet future lovers here, get married here, christen their children here, and eventually have their funeral here. Regardless of one’s believe in god or the afterlife, this church is more about the living than the dead.” With these words I connected my love of man…my humanist and secular side…with the historical Christian side to our lives.

On our last day in Spain, we connected…once again…our everyday lives with the historical Christian side by stopping and visiting the  Iglesia Catedral de Santa María en Murcia. This was a true gothic (interior) cathedral.

 Iglesia Catedral de Santa María en Murcia
Iglesia Catedral de Santa María en Murcia, constructed 1391-1467

This was a cathedral to be marveled at…to be struck by awe…to be humbled by the magnificent stone structure built to honor the Holy Mother on the sight of Muslim mosque…Christian king Jaime I The Conquerer made no apologizes for his part in the reconquest of Islamic Spain…here was built a cathedral nearly a century later to consecrate the site he ordered a Mass. Here was a church that said volumes about the devotion of Christian man in his endless battle against pagan religions and invaders. Here was a church that beckoned the Lord’s grace.

As we entered, we were immediately met by the Holy Mother herself:

Santa
Santa Maria

Friday mass was about to begin, so we quickly walked through…absorbing the grandeur as we swiftly moved among the pews. The cathedral sits in a prominent spot in the center of the old city and a plaza surrounds it with modern shops and cafes offering tapas and sangria. We sat within the shade of the cathedral’s bell tower following our quick tour and ate cod and potato tapas while washing it down with a sweet red sangria. It was a perfect lunch within the benevolent shadow of the Iglesia Catedral de Santa María en Murcia. It was a perfect ending to a perfect vacation.

We had been stunned by the beauty of the Spanish countryside…but truly, it was the two Spanish churches that stole our hearts. I have been asked many times how an atheist can be so enraptured by old Christian churches and cathedrals. My answer is always the same…it is my love and respect of the human devotion and ability to design and build such altars that allows me to reconcile my non belief in a Christian god with my admiration of Christian temples. In the end, it is my respect for humans who made these gorgeous buildings that draws me within their doors.

1. text by: laesquinadeltuerto.blogspot.com

2. I got a parking ticket for not paying the parking fee…we quickly left once I discovered the ticket. If anyone ever rents this car again and stops at this church…we fear they may get towed.

 

 

iTunes Library…haters gonna hate

“There is no such thing as a guilty pleasure.” – Chuck Klosterman in an Esquire article (me paraphrasing him)

As usual I needed to charge my iPhone prior to boarding the plane…so there I was booting up my Mac laptop to get a little extra juice to my phone. iTunes popped up on the screen as soon as I inserted my phone’s USB cable…and there was Desiree’s iTunes library. I had no fucking clue who Desiree was…I don’t even know a Desiree, yet her iTunes library was one of the folders in my iTunes. I quickly called my wife to see if her or one of the kids had made a playlist called “Desiree”…but I knew damn well that wasn’t what had happened. Instead, the mysterious Desiree was actually some other airline passenger sitting at the gate waiting on a plane…and had not ensured that their iTunes was locked down. Here it was…Desiree’s complete iTunes library for the world to see…or at least other Mac/iTunes users.

Desiree’s iTunes library wasn’t that large…2,418 songs and in their alphabetized glory they arranged themselves A to Z. It started with Abba (Greatest Hits) and proceeded to be one boring (my opinion) song after another. By the time I got to Beethoven, I was extremely disappointed and removed my ability to see (and use/download) Desiree’s iTunes library. Between Abba to Beethoven and the bad security, all I could think was white girl problems. I was struck by the way I had so quickly judged Desiree and her shitty choice in music. I also knew that if I could have met Desiree I would have kept my opinion to myself but would have informed her of the bad security on her computer and suggested she fix her shit. I did, numerous times, say “Desiree” quite loudly while on the phone to my wife hoping that Desiree would hear me…alas no one turned their head or acted as if they were Desiree. Somewhere out there is a female (I am assuming Desiree is a female’s name) walking around with an iTunes library being shared to everyone…and in her wake leaving a bunch of people like me shaking their heads at the extremely boring music she listens to.

Now before you start saying “Hey Sublimemonkey, you ever thought that others might pass judgement on your selection of music?” Why yes I am sure they would and do. As a matter of fact my wife has done this numerous times. Like all things coming together in holy matrimony, my wife and I brought our iTunes libraries together and formed one large unholy concoction that not only starts with A-ha (mine)…but it also includes AC/DC (mine) to a bunch of Strawberry Shortcake songs (wife’s…actually wife’s daughter) to Thin Lizzy (mine) to songs from the show iCarly (wife’s). So we are not above reproach. As my wife likes to say…when you start scrolling our iTunes library from A-ha to .50 Cents, you get stuck in this endless desert highway of one AC/DC song after another…and this is a result of me owning the complete AC/DC catalog. Believe what you want…AC/DC kicks ass.

To be fair, I feel it necessary to share some dirty laundry…specifically some musical underwear that may or may not have some skid marks in them. If poor ol’ Desiree had to have her iTunes library examined by a very judgmental 43 year-old man, then it is only…in the name of cosmic justice…fair that I, at a minimum provide a taste of my iTunes library. Specifically, I feel like sharing what iTunes has determined and labeled my “Top 25 Most Played” songs. I offer no apologies, but am proud to point out that there is no Abba on it…even though there is some Abba in my iTunes library…but there is Nickelback, and for that I feel no need to apologize regardless of the number of people who deplore Nickelback. So here for your curiosity and amusement is Sublimemonkey’s iTunes Top 25 Most Played songs ranked from lowest to highest:

– “Revolver” by Madonna…not only is the song obviously about sex…it is also catchy as hell and I don’t care that this once pudgy Italian-American girl now has a British accent. I loved her when she was singing about virginity and love her now when she sings about being a whore.

– “Celebrity Skin” by Hole…Courtney Love, like Madonna, seems to cause people to either cringe or smile. As much as I like Nirvana (regardless of their killing heavy metal), I cannot and will not blame Courtney for anyone’s suicide…and yes I do feel that Courtney has talent and her critics may really hate her…but part of me thinks that those who disparage her are actually jealous of her ability to continue to hang around without overdosing. You go girl!

– “I Believe In a Thing Called Love” by The Darkness…another (somewhat) modern rock band harkening a 1970s sound…all campy and somewhat androgynous and when I hear this song I always think that The Darkness is probably of one the best bands to micmic Queen.

– “I am the Highway” by Audioslave…former Rage Against the Machine musicians who I feel got in touch with a softer and more meaningful side and this song specifically seems to be one the most beautiful love songs or one of the best lost love songs ever written…these two types of “love” songs seem to go hand-in-hand and always dependent on a listeners situation…falling in love and losing love are the two sides to the sharp razor which is what we call “love.”

– “Cavalier” by Shovels & Rope…a husband and wife duo that are from Charleston, South Carolina…probably one of the best bands I have heard in the past 2 years. Saw them in DC last year and was amazed how it is just the two of them and how they alternate between playing the guitar and the drums. Their lyrics are quick and smart…plus who doesn’t love a song with the following: “Well, ice cream, soda pop, bourbon on top/Some people call it rock and roll and some people call it pop/Some call it country music every time you use a fiddle/How am I supposed to know if that’s a fact or just a riddle.”

– “Rockstar” by Nickelback…haters gonna hate…but if you have ever been a person who has listened to a lot of rock music and NOT imagined what it is like to be an actual rockstar, then I would argue that you have never really listened to rock music. Every thing Nickelback sings in this is not only tongue-in-cheek…but completely true. Let’s face it…to get to the pinnacle of your profession requires a bit of selling of one’s soul.

– “Electric Worry” by Clutch…like all Clutch songs, I really don’t know what the fuck they are singing about…but this song kicks fucking ass. Pretty sure this pothead metal/rock band doesn’t give a shit whether we know what they are singing about or not.

– “I’m On Fire” by Bruce Springsteen…one of the few redeemable songs on his “Born in the USA” album…and if you thought Sting was a stalking freak with “Every Breath You Take”…then you need to listen to this obsessive ode by Bruce. This short simple song is nothing but pure obessiveness.

– “Tainted Love” by Marilyn Manson…as a huge fan of Soft Cell’s original version…I believe MM hits it right for a modern take on how love can go so bad. Just like The Darkness, MM is nothing but camp and theatrics and if The Darkness is today’s Queen, MM is today’s David Bowie. Is MM weird…yes but who gives a fuck…and if you thought MM’s “Tainted Love” video was weird, click on Soft Cell’s version…now that was weird back in the day.

– “So Good” by B.o.B. …and just like Nickelback, here is another artist talking about how wonderful it is to be rich and famous. I heard this song for the first time a couple of years ago while driving in England and if you want to know what the next big club hit is going to be…go to Europe and turn on the radio to a pop station. Another worthless song about self-importance and how wonderful it is to be rich and famous…but hey B.o.B. is rich and going to take you places all over the world.

– “High On a Wire” by Black Box Revelation…another modern post-punk/rock band that sounds like a mix of Ramones and Black Crowes. My wife and I heard this song and band for the first time while having an afternoon beer in a DC bar. We found the lead singer’s voice has an odd Tom Petty edge to it…which may the result of this band being from Belgium and English not being their native tongue. Others have said they sound like a mix between the Beatles and the Kinks, but I am going to stick to my original reference to the Ramones and Black Crowes, or at a minimum Jet (who I think is another one of those typical modern post-punk bands that sound like every other one).

– “Hold On” by Alabama Shakes…like Shovels & Rope, Alabama Shakes is one of those rare finds that I stumbled across a year or two ago and immediately struck by their musical prowess and how their sound didn’t seem to match their obvious youth. Sometimes a song doesn’t have to say much to mean something…sometimes it says volumes by the way the vocals and instrumentals strike you hard in the soul. This band and this song hit you hard in the chest.

– “Gravity’s Gone” by the Drive-By Truckers…one of my favorite bands and one of my favorite songs by them. DBT may appeal to me because of the fact that they are from northwest Alabama and sing about things that make complete sense to me. Have to say that I have identified with so many DBT songs that is almost impossible to keep count. This song and “Let There Be Rock” are songs that I so quickly and easily identify with that I feel that I not only know the DBT’s personally, but they were guys I hung out with in high school and college.

– “Jailbreak” by AC/DC…a cover of Thin Lizzy’s (who was one bad muthafuckin’ band) song and as always…AC/DC nails it. I can’t imagine there is any man who is older than 35 who doesn’t turn up the volume when AC/DC comes on. No band, other than maybe Aerosmith, has sung as much about pussy as AC/DC. When we turn up AC/DC we are not only listening to great rock n’ roll…we are also turning back the clock and picturing ourselves as 16 year-olds. We don’t listen to AC/DC to make our wives or girlfriends happy, and we sure as shit don’t listen to them to impress you…we listen to them to be 16 again.

– “Shake Your Hips” by the Rolling Stones…the Stones didn’t want to be a rock band and definitely didn’t want to be a pop band (Beatles)…they wanted to be a blues band. The British Invasion was nothing more than British bands coming across the Atlantic and showing us that they had been listening to our music. This song is one of my wife’s favorites and I am proud to have introduced her to it.

– “Nth Degree” by Morningwood…another retro sounding song from another one-hit wonder that is nothing but toe-tapping fun. Obviously, a 3rd grader could have written the lyrics since it is primarily nothing more than the lead singer (with her boobs bouncing out of her shirt in the video) spelling out the bands name “M-O-R-N-I-N-G-W-O-O-D”…and yeah we get it…you’re talking about the affliction most of us guys have when we get out of bed in the mornings and spend ten minutes trying to piss. Nothing important here, move along.

– “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People…yep, a song about a school shooting…inappropriate yes…is unrealistic for us to expect musicians not to sing about things going on in society…yes. The endless loop of the chorus leaves no doubt that this song is meant to drive home the point that what happens in society is reflected in pop culture/music.

– “Bad Girlfriend” by Theory of a Deadman…had to go with an unofficial video since I couldn’t find an explicit and official version on YouTube…but if you are going to listen to this song censored…then you are completely fooling yourself and missing the point of the song. This song is what it is…and all of us know a woman who is like this and if you are fortunate enough to dated her then you completely get this song. Also be aware this song sounds great in a strip club.

– “Fire Woman” by the Cult…before Theory of a Deadman were singing about their girlfriend, the Cult had already established the point that there are some woman out there that steal your heart with their energy and presence…and yes this song also sounds great in a strip club.

– “Salute Your Solution” by The Raconteurs…another song by Jack White and whomever he adds to play behind him…and let’s be honest it is Jack White who is the genius here and it will never be you. As much as I respect him and his talent, I always come away feeling I wouldn’t like him in person. But props are due where props are due, however, I will always listen to Jack White (in whatever version he is today or tomorrow) with a bit of hesitancy because there is so much anecdotal evidence pointing to the fact he is a raging dickhead.

– “Air Force Ones” by Nelly (and a bunch of other rappers you have never heard of)…I have said it before and I will say it again…best song about shoes EVER. I identify less with obvious Nike shoe addiction than the fact that a good beat and an almost comedic take on fashion commercialism is nothing less than low, sweet, and cool. This song is my ringtone and alarm. My personal taste in athletic shoes, however, is Adidas…but “I need two paaaaaar” of Air Force Ones.

– “I‘m On A Boat” by the Lonely Planet…yes it is comedy…yes it is stupid…yes it is juvenile…but it is one of the greatest songs ever. I claim this strictly on the fact that I have never met anyone who has listened to this song and then not immediately being able to sing it. If nothing else, its lyrics are memorable…and when we hear it, all we do is laugh. It has to be good if it makes you smile and laugh…and it is nowhere as dirty or rough as “Natalie’s Rap.”

– “Leaving Tennessee” by Cross Canadian Ragweed…seems there is a whole group of artists out there that have a made a living out of bad mouthing the record industry in Nashville, and just like Robbie Fulks’ “Fuck This Town” it seems easy to hate Nashville. This song, “Leaving Tennessee,” coupled with their ode to weed “Boys From Oklahoma” pretty much surmises the depth of Cross Canadian Ragweed.

– “Bad Dog” by Neon Hitch…basically a lesser version of Lady GaGa and definitely one with a smaller catalog than Lady GaGa…however, this song and her “Fuck U Betta” pretty much puts her in running for the next Madonna. Neon Hitch is far more attractive than Lady GaGA…but the battle of the dirty-mouthed fashionistas won’t end until either Lady GaGa or Neon Hitch have had as long a run as Madonna.

– “Bad Luck” by Social Distortion…simply put, Social Distortion is rock n’ roll that pays respects to the early days where men looked like James Dean or Elvis, yet were able to play Marlon Brando. This is what the definition of rock n’ roll sounds like in the dictionary.

Now, what I find interesting is that none of these songs would really make my top 25 list if I was actually making the selection. Instead, iTunes uses some algorithm and it has to be more than how many times the song has played…because I have listened to these songs and so many others in my iTunes. This is a question a lot of people are asking because there are whole discussions at apple.com about how iTunes counts the number. Doesn’t seem there is a legitimate answer out there. I am just glad Abba or Beethoven aren’t on my list…even though both exist in iTunes library.

Desiree may not have had a very large iTunes library and it may have been a little vanilla, however, I cannot really pass judgement. I am just going to be thankful that I have my iTunes (and the rest of my shit) locked down cause I would hate to know that someone is sitting somewhere seeing my iTunes library and wondering who in the hell would have a whole collection of Kazakh folk music AND Metallica’s complete catalog. Desiree, you just go on and rock your badass self out and don’t let anyone tell you that your taste in music sucks. Haters gonna hate.