Sunday, January 21, 2007

Plutarch and Pogo

Every night, for the past couple weeks, I've ended the day reading Plutarch's Lives. I returned from vacation with a couple musty cardboard boxes filled with the complete Collier's 1908 edition of The Harvard Classics. I inherited these elegant leatherbound volumes from my now deceased step-dad, Andy Frantz. His father purchased the collection shortly after returning from the Great War, marrying and setting up the home that Andy grew up and ultimately ended his days in. Andy was a former Army para-trooper and salt-of-the-earth Pennsylvania Dutchman. Judging from their condition these books were probably placed on their shelves sometime in the early 1920s and never troubled again until I boxed them up in December '06. Andy was famous for a vast library of corny jokes, but not for comments even remotely footnoted to Plutarch's Lives, let alone anything else in The Harvard Classics. Andy was no Charlie Tuna.

It was only by pure chance that the first volume I pulled out was #12, Plutarch's Lives. As of last night, thanks to the absence of any interferring romantic life, I finished reading all the Greek lives. As mentioned several times in earlier postings, I'm a BIG fan of Victor Davis Hanson. As a practicing academic Professor Hanson is a world authority on the Greeks. Very early in the War on Terrorism he penned more than one cautionary article referenced to the Peloponnesian Wars on the propensity of democracys to eat their young, and at the end of the day be their own worst enemy.

Reading Plutarch's accounts of four Greek Athenian leaders was sometimes difficult.....even in English. But one thing was very clear, these leaders were often in dammed if you do and dammed if you don't situations. Time and again these Athenian leaders found themselves succeeding in some far off battlefield while simultaneously the object of naysaying and convoluted conspiracy theories back at home. They would either return from a decisive campaign to a judicial process resulting in a death sentence or a ten year ostracism, or having gotten wind of pending proceedings, fleeing to safer shores. And just as predictably the Athenians, when faced with some new evolving threat, would recall them from exile to be followed by still another cycle of conspiracy theories, accusations, ostracism and exile. The net result, judging by the final outcome of Phase 5 of the Peloponnesian war in 404 BC, was not good for the Athenians. Pogo, a cartoon character speaking a couple millennia later in 1970 probably summed it up in his famous quote, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

The last of the four historical accounts is that of Alcibiades. With this tale the final drama of the Peloponnesian War is acted out. Alcibiades has been recalled from one of his exiles and finds himself at the head of a mighty Athenian armada. Yet again, no sooner is he back at the helm of Athenian forces and far afield that political machinations at home set in motion another, and as it turns out, final irreversible and disasterous undermining of Alcibiades' leadership.
Here's the quote from Plutarch's narrative that signals the downward spiral to defeat for Athenian democracy:
They fancied, every day, that they should hear news of the reduction of Chios, and of the rest of Ionia, and grew impatient that things were not effected as fast and as rapidly as they could wish for them. They never considered how extremely money was wanting, and that, having to carry on war with an enemy who had supplies of all things from a great king, he was often forced to quit his armament, in order to procure money and provisions for the subsistence of his soldiers.
In short, the Athenians had unrealistic expectations and little or no awareness of the reality of the situation in the field. This next quote is the gist of the spin Alcibiades' political enemies, capitalizing on disenchantment at home, promoted about the state of the war under his command:
Addressing the people, he represented that Alcibiades had ruined their affairs and lost their ships by mere self-conceited neglect of his duties, committing the government of the army, in his absence, to men who gained his favor by drinking and scurrilous talking, whilst he wandered up and down at pleasure to raise money, giving himself up to every sort of luxury and excess amongst the courtesans of Abydos and Ionia, at a time when the enemy’s navy were on the watch close at hand. It was also objected to him, that he had fortified a castle near Bisanthe in Thrace, for a safe retreat for himself, as one that either could not, or would not, live in his own country. The Athenians gave credit to these informations, and showed the resentment and displeasure which they had conceived against him, by choosing other generals.
Despite his removal from power Alcibiades attempted to advise and warn the new leadership about the coming battle, only to be rebuffed and rebuked:
He advised them to remove the fleet to Sestos. But the admirals not only disregarded what he said, but Tydeus, with insulting expressions; commanded him to be gone, saying, that now not he, but others, had the command of the forces. Alcibiades, suspecting something of treachery in them, departed, and told his friends, who accompanied him out of the camp, that if the generals had not used him with such insupportable contempt, he would within a few days have forced the Lacedæmonians, however unwilling, either to have fought the Athenians at sea, or to have deserted their ships.
Alcibiades' expertise is rejected and his prescience ignored. Athenian defeat is utterly complete. Hindsight for the now humiliated Athenians is 20/20, as this final quote reveals, with the all to late realization they had met the ultimate enemy, themselves.
The Athenians, in the meantime, were miserably afflicted at their loss of empire, but when they were deprived of liberty also, and Lysander set up thirty despotic rulers in the city, in their ruin now they began to turn to those thoughts which, while safety was yet possible, they would not entertain; they acknowledged and bewailed their former errors and follies, and judged this second ill-usage of Alcibiades to be of all the most inexcusable. For he was rejected, without any fault committed by himself; and only because they were incensed against his subordinate for having shamefully lost a few ships, they much more shamefully deprived the commonwealth of its most valiant and accomplished general.

I find myself thinking in particular of Winston Churchill. I imagine that feisty curmudgeon in all his jowly glory with a cigar stub in one V for victory hand and a Thompson submachine gun at the ready in the other. He, like Alcibiades, was the kind of guy you'd find in glass case with the words "Break Open in Time of War" stenciled in big bright blood red red letters on the front. I have a pretty good idea Winston read Plutarch's Lives. Ole "W"'s probably no match for Churchill, but he's as close as we're going to get this time around.

Here at the end of another day, contemplating further reading of Plutarch (the Romans come next), I can't help but wonder which I should entertain more hope for, my love life or the political will and resolve of my beloved country. In at least one of these I'm perhaps my own worse enemy. Which one? That I leave to you dear reader.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

A Thousand Cats

Hey all. Sorry for being off-line for so long. I took some much needed vacation over the holidays. Since coming off of leave time has been quickly devoured with all the sundry tasks related to putting together a museum show. There's a catalogue to design, all the pieces for the show photographed for a variety of uses, and written material to update and create. My "artist's statement" needs to be expanded to reflect two additional deployments, and the head curator of the hosting museum, the James A. Michener Art Museum, asked for a half-dozen text panels to accompany the show. The framing of new pieces, and eventual layout, appraising, insuring and transportation of the entire show has to be arranged, financed and scheduled. The catalogue has to be finished and a printer engaged. AND, I'm writing an article about another project I was instrumental in, the Marine Corps Combat Art Prints 2006, for the March issue of Leatherneck magazine.

Although the show is six months off, there is a sense of urgency behind getting the lion's share of exhibit preparation done by the end of February. Why is that? This February 18th will find me down at Camp Lejeune going through pre-deployment training. Sometime during the month of March my boots will find themselves back on the ground in Iraq covering the "surge" for approximately three months. Sergeant Battles, our deployed artist, is transitioning home and I'm the next of our three combat artists in the rotation cycle.

Like most of you I follow the news very closely. The other morning Michelle Malkin appeared on the Fox News morning show to talk about her recent visit to Iraq. What she related, both at her website and in the Fox interview, reflect my "boots-in-the-dirt" experiences. In truth, the war will be won or lost not in the back alleys of Baghdad and Ramadi, but here in the political mean streets of America. For myself I find no greater clarity with regards to the present state of American politics than in the incredibly lucid writings of Victor Davis Hanson.

For most GIs there is a gross disconnect between our real-time experiences in Iraq and the way the situation is portrayed and percieved on the homefront. The morale and dedication of those actually conducting the mission is high while at the same time the corresponding will of the American body politic is deteriorating. How is this possible? I had a journalist explain it to me this way, "if there's a thousand cats and there's one up in the tree, the one in the tree gets covered." One of our History Division historians, Lt Col Kurt Wheeler (a Harvard grad), posted recently about his up close and personal impressions of the progress of the mission and the sentiments of the Marines in Iraq that bears witness to the stories behind the thousand cats on the ground. Dr. Sanity did a great expose' January 19th on this cognitive disconnect with respect to current events entitled Bambi Meets Godzilla and Other Weird Cartoons of the Modern World, you may find interesting reading.

At anyrate, as one of the thousand cats not up in the tree, I promise to continue to tell my story.