PTSD: Not so New, Just the Recognition of It

Translations of ancient documents, as old as from 1300 BCE, suggest battle scars which we now call PTSD.

“The sorts of symptoms after battle were very clearly what we would call now post-traumatic stress symptoms.

“They described hearing and seeing ghosts talking to them, who would be the ghosts of people they’d killed in battle – and that’s exactly the experience of modern-day soldiers who’ve been involved in close hand-to-hand combat.”



Did Gifted Generals Win the War?

Andrew Bacevich, former colonel in the US Army, and now professor of International Relations at Boston University reviews two books about the war in Iraq, and especially two of its generals: David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.  The books do not tell all they might.  Even though Bacevich praises the research of Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor in The Endgame, he faults them for not walking their analysis out to where it leads.

“The Endgame” seeks to “provide the most comprehensive account to date” of the events it describes. It achieves that. Even so, where it matters mostthe ­authors come up short.

Future historians may well classify the surge as a myth concocted to perpetuate a fraud. The myth centers on the claim that a strategy devised in Washington and implemented by a brilliant general saved the day. The fraud is that a 20-year military effort to determine the fate of Iraq yielded something approximating a positive outcome. Although “The Endgame”provides an abundance of evidence to demolish the myth, Gordon and Trainor shy away from doing so. With the American public and political elites inclined simply to forget the Iraq war, “The Endgame”provides a rationale for doing just that.

A useful antidote to those trotting out figureheads to claim that the ship is heading in the right direction.

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Our Fabulous Two Minutes!

La Seratta of American Growth

Sunday is always a wonderful day to find longer, more deeply thought essays than the usual dashed-off pieces during the week.  I was grabbed by Chrystia Freeland’s “Self Destruction of the 1 Percent” in the NY Times.  Using the historical demise of Venice as a great world power, beginning in 1315, when the ruling elite closed their ranks to new contributors to various “collegana” financed trade expeditions, she looks at what has been happening in the US as social mobility has fallen and innovation and ability to compete internationally has followed.

A title I’ve longed to write comes to mind:  Free Markets, Hah Hah!    The only business people who truly believe in free markets are those trying to get in.  Once in, the name of the game is protect and defend:  freedom is a threat.  In the words if Luigi Zingali of the University of Chicago, “Most lobbying is pro-business, in the sense that it promotes the interests of existing businesses, not pro-market in the sense of fostering truly free and open competition.

The story of Venice she cites is one of many in  Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Power, by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson, an economic history long the lines of Jared Diamond’s Collapse, or David Landes’  The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor.  Like the other two, it looks worthy of serious consideration, which of course includes understanding how others have read it and here.   Freeland’s own recent book, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else,” is a longer and more detailed argument for the ideas put forth in the Times article.


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The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations contributes another fine book to the growing library of the history of climate change and human life.   Fagan here concentrates primarily on the Medieval Warm Period from about 800 to 1300 CE.   Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, is perhaps the best known climate history with some 10 examples of societies — many of them in the Medieval Warm Period– which failed, or succeded for a while.  Diamond’s focus, as seen in the titles,  is different than Fagan’s, less a history of climate and its influence on people and more on the decisions societies make, or fail to make, when confronted with great changes in circumstances. Other recent books on the general theme are Catastophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization, by David Keys, which covers some of the same events as Fagan,  and Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, by Mike Davis, which looks at climate history much nearer to the present time. Fagan himself, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Santa Barbara, has several related titles, including The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850,  the centuries that followed the Medieval Warm Period, and The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization,  which might be better called “How Climate Made Civilization,” as it looks at the years of pre-history, from about 15,000 BCE to the beginning of the Little Ice Age, about 13,500 CE.  Knowledge about climate and human habitation in these long ago centuries has increased greatly in recent years due to new and more subtle technologies, and the marvelous ability of serious science to take what is understood, create new theories which can be tested with new devices and knowledge cross fertilized between archeology, anthropology, climatology, and all of these with the paleo- prefix before them.  The Great Warming is a great place to begin.

Fagan picks the Medieval Warm Period for examination in part because it is continuously cited by climate change deniers as proof, they say, that the earth has warmed up before and it’s part of the natural cycle of things. The conclusions of 99% of climate scientists who say today’s climate is on track to warm to catastophic levels is so much bunkum. The other reason to focus on this period is because the recent surge of data-based evidence from all around the world has given us a much clearer picture of conditions we could only guess at a few years ago: carbon-dated trees long buried below the water of Mono and Walker Lakes in California, measurable titanium content in layered sequences of deep sea core, reflecting heavy and light run-off during precipitation, more and deeper ice-core samples showing carbonate levels connecting long droughts in the Tibetan plateau with droughts in the southern Andes.

The evidence of history, Fagan finds, is that while there were large, positive effects of the  Medieval Warm Period, they were largely confined to northern and western Europe. Looking further afield, the warmth that brought longer growing seasons to France and Germany, and made England a wine exporting country, brought devestating drought to the Eurasian steppes and almost certainly drove Ghenghis Khan and his sons west, destroying Baghdad, the center of the Islamic world, and into Vienna, poised to drive into Europe.

In the American southwest, similar decades long droughts, again during the Medieval Warm Period finished the Chaco Canyon pre-Pueblo civiliation. Multiple three and 6 year droughts sapped the Mayan empire until its collapse in the early 10th century.  In China, the warm period was associated with violent swings between extremes:

The droughts were not continuous but cyclical, which would have had dangerous shock effects on the loess lands where the northern borderlands lay.   When a sudden wet year followed a long drought cycle, , floods would have inundated the arid fields and disused irrigation works in short order.   The centuries of the Medieval Warm Period were climactically extremely volatile in this region of dramatic rainfall shifts, perhaps even more so than anywhere else on earth.

In Europe, where the increased warmth laid the basis for moden life, he cites crop productivity before the warm period then shows how it grew as the summers lengthened, rainfall became more regular, predictability was more accurate. As crops increased in size and food was above bare survival amounts, life span increased, family size got bigger.  As families got bigger more land was needed. Marginal land was converted and could be plowed with the advent of the moldboard plow which could turn over clayey ground as the earlier ard plow could not. Deforestestation began apace. In 500 CE over 3/4 of temperate western and central Europe was forest or swampland. By the early 1300s, the end of the warm period, over half of that was gone. As early as 1322 in England, villagers complained about deforestation. As crop-based wealth grew and supported more people, skilled trades advanced, capital was accumulated and such monuments as the Cathedral of Notre Dame could be built…

The chapter about the Mongol raiders is very interesting, though he spends too much time, in my opinion, on their “interesting” ways of killing, and the fear they sowed everywhere they went, and too little on the climate connection. He does say:

The prolonged warm period detected in the Mongolian tree rings coincides with Ginghis Khan’s savage conquests: hotter and drier conditions would have mean a surge in warfare at a time of potential hunger and rising unrest.

and follows Batu Khan’s withdrawal from Vienna by saying that the wetter, better conditions in Bulgaria and the Cuman steppes took away the incentive to drive on into Europe’s heartland.

He also has interesting, more speculative chapters about the Inuit in the Yukon and how warmer seasons allowed them to push east, how the gold trade between western Africa and Egypt was dried up as the sahara grew southward.

To Fagan’s own surprise, after synthesizing all the material available, “as my research progressed away from Europe, I realized that drought was the hidden villain in the the Medieval Warm Period.” And not only then:

In a telling analysis of ninteenth century droughts, the historian Mike Davis has estimated, conservatively, that at least 20 million to 30 million people, and probably many more, most of them tropical farmers, persihed as the consquence of harsh droughts caused by El Niño and monsoon failures during the nineteenth century, more people than in virtually all the wars of the century.

Fagan has an important story to tell, and by and large he tells it well.  The cut-outs with explanations of El Niño and the Southern Oscillation or Pacific Decadal Oscillation are helpful, as are the many maps, illustrating the regions under discussion.  Less successful for me are the periodic present tense narratives of peoples thousands of years ago:

The gray light of a clear sky before dawn spreads across a dry lake bed.  The men crouch low among the shrubs on the dry floor of a huge, rapidly shrinking lake in what is now California  This is the driest year they can remember…

For some readers, these portions may humanize the larger systems histories.  For me, they are a different register, and interrupt my otherwise pleasurable, and informative reading.

His fear is great.  Those societies that managed to survive calamitous droughts and other forms of climate chanage were those which were most adaptable, typically associated with smaller and well connected communities.  The larger, and less flexible cities or societies became, the less able they were to adapt.  He hold out some hope, however small.

The people of a thousand years ago remind us that our greatest asset is our opportunism and endless capacity to adapt to new circumstances.  Let us think of ourselves as partners with rather than potential masters of the changing natural world around us.

 The Great Warming is certainly worth reading, as it look like, are those others listed above.  For a more general view on climate change, the events and science of today, my preferred book is Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers: A History of Climate Change.  It’s a series of essays, engaged in climate science and detailing the trouble spots on the globe today, examples of what we are facing.  Another excellent primer is Joe Romm’s [of Climate ProgressHell and High Water: The Global Warming Solution.

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes

I’ve had the pleasure of reading (actually, listening to) Bay Area author Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, over the past few days.   It’s just the sort of introductory history that’s needed in the West, whose citizens have been suddenly made aware of  about one-quarter of the world’s population previously ignored, hidden or appearing only in exotic stories and costumes or terrifying videos.

Ansary doesn’t claim to be a historian. In fact, he’s written a novel, a memoir, several  children’s and young adult books, both fiction and non-fiction.  For many years he was a text book editor for High School history texts, where he first noticed the paucity of accounts of the Muslim world.  He is  currently the director of The San Francisco Writer’s Workshop.  What he has done is to read deeply in academic and popular accounts of the story of Islam, from the revelations of the Prophet Mohammed to what he calls “secular modernism” and the rise of a response to that in our decades.  He writes with balance and poise, often telling how an event or a person has come to be regarded differently by different traditions of Islam.  I can’t make out any bias when he tells us why Shia and Sunni look differently at Aisha, the Prophet’s youngest daughter;  we do understand however, why she is important to each.  Ansary, born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1948, has lived in the United States since 1964, and describes himself as a “secular guy.”

Chapter 2 alone, will clear up the confusion most of us have had since the Bush invasion of Iraq, over the Sunni and the Shia, and just who is this Ali, and how is he related to The Prophet.  The City of Basra with which we became reluctantly acquainted in the first weeks of the invasion was the scene of the first great battle between Muslims — which the Koran and the Prophet had forbidden barely 40 years earlier– called by many The Battle of the Camel. The Prophet’s youngest daughter, the fiery Aisha [Ayesha], rode into battle and directed her troops from the back of a camel against Ali, the Prophet’s paternal cousin, and quasi adoptive brother.  The years of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs,” the first four successors to Mohammed,  the struggle to maintain the Ummah (the community of the faithful) and the split off of the Umayyad Caliphate become intelligible, if not as familiar to us as to Muslim school children.

We read of Mohammed’s orphaned childhood and therefore his life-long concern for widows and orphans, built into his sense of the Ummah, and spoken of in the Koran.  We read how Jews in the region spoke Arabic and, as great fighting tribes, were sometime allies of Mohammed or one of his successors.  We read how Umar, somewhat like Saul, was converted in a blinding flash from ferocious opposition to ferocious support — and went on to become one of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs.  All these are as well known to Muslims as Gospel parables and old Testament stories are to Christians.

As importantly, Ansary makes the case that these are not just individual apples to be picked up and carefully added to a Western narrative of apples but they are part of an entirely different understanding, one which if seen honestly by its new readers will allow and encourage true inter-cultural understanding.  The Muslim world has been saturated by Western history, values and morays, while to the West, Islam has been in the periphery.  The time has come, it seems, to sprinkle a little of  its history back upon ourselves.    Ansary  says in his introduction:

The two civilizations have narratives with different trajectories   In the ideal future of  Post Industrial Democratic  Societies  the shape of narrative leading to here and now would look something like this:

  1. Birth of Civilization – Mesopotamia and Egypt
  2. Classical age – Greece and Rome
  3. Dark Ages – Rise of Christianity
  4. Rebirth – Renaissance and Reformation
  5. Enlightenment- Science and Exploration
  6. Revolutions – Democratic, Industrial, Technological
  7. Rise of Nation States – Struggle for Empire
  8. WW I and II
  9. The Cold War
  10. The Triumph of democratic capitalism

The Narrative from Islamic eyes, on the other hand, would look something like this, in which the year 0 is not the birth of Mohammed, but the Hijra, the year Mohammed and a few followers moved from Mecca to what would become Median — the beginning of the Ummah, the community.

Through Islamic eyes: Year 0  is year of migration of Mohammed to Medina.

  1. Ancient Times – Mesopatamia and Persia
  2. Birth of Islam
  3. Caliphate  — Quest of Univeral Unity
  4. Fragmentation — Age of the Sultans
  5. Catastrophe – Crusaders and Mongols
  6. Rebirth — The three empires
  7. Permeation of East by West
  8. Reform movements
  9. Triumph of secular modernists
  10. Islamist reaction

It is an interesting and mind-stretching story, one which many of us should be anxious to begin to understand.  I’m far from being a scholar of this and won’t vouch for the authenticity of Ansary’s details, though  any I have looked further into, from other narrators, confirm closely to his telling.  As he says, by the time of the Hijra, 621 CE (Year 0 for the Muslims) the Middle world — as he calls the great land mass between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, tied together by the major and minor trade routes– was highly literate.  Many contemporaneous sources attest to events and personalities.  Though it sometimes shows Ansary’s background in writing for young readers it is certainly a good beginning for all of us, being young as it were, in the face of this knowledge.  Those who find it compelling enough can begin intellectual journey to fuller knowledge by comparing new scholarship to old, and adding in representations of how Muslim values are represented in fiction and film.

Ansary, has plenty of material on the Internet, as background and incentive to get to know him better, here, here and here.  He is particularly attached to the country of his ancestors, Afghanistan.  His website is a good place to check in on, for his thoughts and late breaking news of his homeland. I can think of no better way to begin, however, than to dive into Destiny Disrupted. It’s like hearing the life story of a neighbor you meet one day after a generation of being separated by the walls built by our grandparents.  And in fact, I can particularly recommend the audio version of the book, narrated by Ansary himself, one the best readers of the several dozen audio books I have listened to in the last year.  I do miss of course, the nice collection of maps he includes in the book itself.


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