Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mark Twain's Colors: 'Following the Equator'

by Bill Doughty

This is a book by one of America's greatest writers. Mark Twain's "Following the Equator" takes the reader not just to different places around the globe but also back in time. Volume I covers the Pacific Ocean – to Hawaii and Fiji, to Australia and New Zealand. Volume II continues into the Indian Ocean from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India to Africa.

"Following" is fun, fantasy and philosophy. It's storytelling, daydreams and nostalgia.
"On the seventh day out we saw a dim vast bulk standing up out of the wastes of the Pacific and knew that that spectral promontory was Diamond Head, a piece of this world which I had not seen before for twenty-nine years. So we were nearing Honolulu, the capital city of the Sandwich Islands – those islands which to me were Paradise; a Paradise which I had been longing all those years to see again. Not any other thing in the world could have stirred me as the sight of that great rock.  In the night we anchored a mile from shore. Through my port I could see the twinkling lights of Honolulu and the dark bulk of the mountain-range that stretched away right and left."
More than a century later, during this summer of 2014, thousands of Sailors from nearly two dozen countries are discovering Diamond Head and Honolulu during the world's largest maritime exercise: Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC 2014). They may be seeing the same kinds of vistas as Twain describes:
"We had a sunset of a very fine sort. The vast plain of the sea was marked off in bands of sharply contrasted colors; great stretches of dark blue, others of purple, others of polished bronze; the billowy mountains showed all sorts of dainty browns and greens, blues and purples and blacks, and the rounded velvety backs of certain of them made one want to stroke them, as one would the sleek back of a cat. The long, sloping promontory projecting into the sea at the west turned dim and leaden and spectral, then became suffused with pink – dissolved itself into a pink dream, so to speak, it seemed so airy and unreal. Presently the cloud-rack was flooded with fiery splendors, and these were copied on the surface of the sea, and it made one drunk with delight to look upon it."
Alfred Thayer Mahan
Mark Twain
Twain transited the Pacific in 1895, the same year that then-Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, intellectual father of the industrial-age Navy, commanded USS Chicago and sailed the Atlantic. Twain's "Following" was published in 1897, the same year as Mahan's "The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future" and "The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain."

Twain visits Nelson, New Zealand. Two years earlier that country established women's right to vote, a right that would take 25 more years to become a reality in the United States, much to Twain's chagrin.

The shadow of Captain Cook, Admiral Nelson and Great Britain looms throughout Twain's travels. Just three decades after the Civil War, he eviscerates imperialism and racism. Using a virtual magnifying glass, he examines his world  introspectively and actually.

A statue after an ice storm.
He describes the duckbill platypus in Australia, the crow in India and a chameleon in Africa. He is enthralled with funeral rituals, religious traditions and how people treat each other. His greatest reverence is for nature. To Twain, the Taj Mahal is no more beautiful than an ice-storm, "Nature's supremest achievement in the domain of the superb and the beautiful":
"The ice-storm occurs in midwinter, and usually its enchantments are wrought in the silence and the darkness of the night. A fine drizzling rain falls hour after hour upon the naked twigs and branches of the trees, and as it falls it freezes. In time the trunk and every branch and twig are incased in hard pure ice; so that the tree looks like a skeleton tree made all of glass – glass that is crystal clear. All along the under side of every branch and twig is a comb of little icicles – the frozen drip. Sometimes these pendants do not quite amount to icicles, but are round beads – frozen tears.
"The weather clears, toward dawn, and leaves a brisk, pure atmosphere and a sky without a shred of cloud in it – and everything is still, there is not a breath of wind. The dawn breaks and spreads, the news of the storm goes about the house, and the little and the big, in wraps and blankets, flock to the window and press together there, and gaze intently out upon the great white ghost in the grounds, and nobody says a word, nobody stirs. All are waiting; they know what is coming, and they are waiting – waiting for the miracle. The minutes drift on and on and on, with not a sound for the ticking of the clock; at last the sun fires a sudden sheaf of rays into the ghostly tree and turns it into a white splendor of glittering diamonds.  Everybody catches his breath, and feels a swelling in his throat and a moisture in his eyes – but waits again; for he knows what is coming; there is more yet. The sun climbs higher, and still higher, flooding the tree from its loftiest spread of branches to its lowest, turning it to a glory of white fire; then in a moment, without warning, comes the great miracle, the supreme miracle, the miracle without its fellow in the earth; a gust of wind sets every branch and twig to swaying, and in an instant turns the whole white tree into a spouting and spraying explosion of flashing gems of every conceivable color; and there it stands and sways this way and that, flash! flash! flash! a dancing and glancing world of rubies, emeralds, diamonds, sapphires, the most radiant spectacle, the most blinding spectacle, the divinest, the most exquisite, the most intoxicating vision of fire and color and intolerable and unimaginable splendor that ever any eye has rested upon in this world, or will ever rest upon outside of the gates of heaven."
Twain can be serious, but the author of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" was in his orbit when he used whimsy and wit to describe his world. 

His power of observation extends to other languages, accents and people, often in sharp, tongue-in-cheek ways, such as his description of a Boer traveler on a train in South Africa:
"One man had corduroy trousers of a faded chewing-gum tint. And they were new – showing that this tint did not come by calamity, but was intentional; the very ugliest color I have ever seen. A gaunt, shackly country lout six feet high, in battered gray slouched hat with wide brim, and old resin-colored breeches, had on a hideous brand-new woolen coat which was imitation tiger-skin – wavy broad stripes of dazzling yellow and deep brown. I thought he ought to be hanged, and asked the station-manager if it could be arranged. He said no; and not only that, but said it rudely; said it with a quite unnecessarily show of feeling. Then he muttered something about my being a jackass,and walked away and pointed me out to people, and did everything he could to turn public sentiment against me. It is what one gets for trying to do good."
When Samuel L. Clemens as Mark Twain ends his 13-month global circumnavigation and feels very proud, his pride is quickly extinguished when he is forced to consider his place and time in the Cosmos after hearing about the latest astronomical discovery. "Human pride is not worth while; there is always something lying in wait to take the wind out of it."

Read "Following the Equator" to discover more – in time.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

'The War That Ended Peace' / 'Poilu'

Reviews by Bill Doughty

Two recent books about World War I offer different perspectives -- one from a broad sweep of world history and the other from inside narrow muddy trenches and a "lunar landscape" battlefield.

Margaret MacMillan, Oxford University professor of history, presents a comprehensive look at events leading up to and through what writer H.G. Wells said would be "the war to end war." Macmillan's "The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914" shows how peculiar personalities and poor choices led to death and destruction in Europe 100 years ago.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright endorsed this book, which has been compared with the classic "The Guns of August" by Barbara Tuchman. Albright said: "'The War That Ended Peace' tells the story of how intelligent, well-meaning leaders guided their nations into catastrophe. These epic events, brilliantly described by one of our era's most talented historians, warn of the dangers that arise when we fail to anticipate the consequences of our actions. This is one of the finest books I have ever read on the causes of World War I."
MacMillan's book has been compared with Tuchman's "The Guns of August."
MacMillan introduces us to characters like Kaiser Wilhelm II, Bernhard von Bülow, Adm. Jacky Fisher, Alfred von Tirpitz, Nicholas II, Edward Grey, Leopold von Berchtold, Raymond Poincaré, and both Helmuth von Moltkes (elder and younger). She asks rhetorically whether these men were to blame for causing the clash of nations.

"Or was no one to blame? Should we look instead at institutions or ideas?" The history of WWI must be painted on a canvas of imperialism and seen through the lens of extreme nationalism.

MacMillan goes back decades before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the days of Napoleon and War of 1812 through the rise of Japan and overreach of Russia, Germany and Britain to explain how nations competed for resources and refused to respect other's territories.
"Where today the international community sees failed or failing states as a problem, in the age of imperialism the powers saw them as an opportunity. China, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, all were weak, divided, and apparently ready to be carved up."
A key influence for all major nations in an era of colonial expansion was Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan's 1890 classic, "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History." Mahan's book showed leaders the role of navies in world commerce and led to a race by Germany and Britain to build ships.
"A strong navy protected the key highways for trade and communication across the oceans, and, equally importantly, enabled the seizing and holding of colonies. Its battle fleets could serve as a deterrent, especially if they were situated in key strategic locations. 'The fleet in being,' as Mahan and others called it, did not necessarily have to fight; it could be used to put pressure on a hostile power in peacetime and make that power think twice before risking its own fleet, even if it were bigger. In war, though, it was the duty of the battle fleet or fleets to destroy the enemy in a decisive battle."
Inspection in the trenches of WWI.
Of course, when war came in 1914, much of the fighting was on landlocked battlefields in France and Germany.  Churchill called the peace before the Great War "exceptional tranquillity." The tranquillity was destroyed by what MacMillan concludes was "a failure of imagination" and "lack of courage" to prevent war.

MacMillan's perspective is global and general. For Corporal Louis Balthas, whose contemporaneous diaries (translated by Edward M. Strauss) are published in this year's "Poilu," the view is muddy and personal -- in and around the trenches -- facing the German "Boche" and "millions of tiny sharp-tongued mosquitoes," and "legions of famished ticks and lice," along with  countless rats and fleas.

I wanted to read this book because my grandfather fought for Germany in the war against the French before emigrating to the United States in the 1920s. I remember the stories he told me of the trenches and being wounded by a French poilu. I still have the old picture book we read together in 1964 about "the Great War," and I treasure the perspective he shared, learning that war and peace were more nuanced and complicated than I had imagined.

Barthas, a barrel maker drafted into the war, writes about the petty tyranny of despotic authority. He shows examples of heroic stoicism, shared humanity between warfighters, and random luck in battle, such as when a soldier's tin of coconut candy, which his girlfriend insisted he carry, ricocheted a bullet near his heart and saved his life.

He describes fear, fatigue and simple gratitude.
"As we left the village, an old lady came up to us, carrying something in her apron. They were some eggs which she handed out to us. As I passed by I managed to snatch one. It's a small thing, an egg, but we were very touched by it. This poor old lady was giving up something necessary for her, to give us this offering. How a gift is made is more important than the gift itself."
Barthas, like Vonnegut, Hemingway and Orwell, writes about the consequences and ironies of war. Like most warriors, he said he fights to preserve peace.

Back home from the war in 1919, he concludes:
"Returned to the bosom of my family after the nightmare years, I taste the joy of life, or rather of new life. I feel tender happiness about things which, before, I didn't pay attention to: sitting at home, at my table, lying in my bed, putting off sleep so I can hear the wind hitting the shutters, rustling the nearby plane trees, hearing the rain strike the windows, looking at a starry, serene, silent night or, on a dark, moonless night, thinking about similar nights spent up there ... Often I think about my many comrades fallen by my side. I heard their curses against the war and its authors, the revolt of their whole being against their tragic fate, against their murder. And I, as a survivor, believe that I am inspired by their will to struggle without cease-fire nor mercy, to my last breath, for the idea of peace and human fraternity."
Both of these books provide deep insights about the First World War and about war, in general, reinforcing the nation's Maritime Strategy, which encourages a cooperative global fraternity and stresses: "preventing wars is as important as winning wars."

Friday, July 4, 2014

Our Key Founder Thomas Paine?

Review by Bill Doughty

Craig Nelson makes a convincing case that a writer (not a lawyer or an elected official) was the key "founding father" of our nation. Writer and immigrant Thomas Paine inspired Thomas Jefferson, John and Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and he encouraged a new nation-in-the-making. Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" and "American Crisis" series led to the American Revolution and helped hold the Continental Army together in the lowest points of 1776.

Paine's genius was in seeing, thinking and writing clearly. He used words to conquer fear and build confidence. From "Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution and the Birth of Modern Nations":
"In the America of 1776, everywhere they looked, Americans saw reasons to be profoundly afraid -- afraid of what the redcoats would do to them, their families, and their property; afraid of losing their British Empire and their British citizenship; afraid of what this new homemade government would do, and what it would require. Paine answered all of these vague and paralyzing terrors in a mere eight pages."
A low point came in the dead of winter of 1776, just six months after the Declaration -- "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

Paine gave away his copyright and all he earned from "Common Sense" in order to help fund the army. On December 23, when the future of the Revolution seemed to hang by threads, "George Washington ordered his officers to gather their men into small squads and read aloud what Paine had written":

"These are the times that try men's souls ... Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives every thing its value ..."

Historians, and the founders themselves, credit statesman Paine with not only inspiring the army and success in the war but also instigating the Revolution itself.

His "Common Sense" took on the "divine right of kings" and sought to replace it with democratic ideals of individual rights and freedom. He embraced "the eighteenth-century stoic view of selfless devotion to the greater good as key element of virtue."

For Paine and the founders, virtue -- like Navy core values of honor, courage, commitment -- was rooted in Roman and Greek culture but also included "virtue of the heart" gained from the Enlightenment, thanks to Isaac Newton and others. Paine's freedom in thinking spanned centuries and would lead to wider and more open acceptance of science by the end of the 19th century.

Portait by Laurent Dabos.
As a person, Thomas Paine (whose family name was originally Pain) was not the most lovable person. He was generous but strongly opinionated, focused but known to imbibe heavily, fearless but petty about perceived insults. An unnamed contemporary said, "He is as great a paradox as ever appeared in human life." He famously verbally dueled with another thinker of his time, Edmund Burke, arguing with Burke that 'ordinary' people "are civilized enough to govern themselves."

At first loved and respected, Paine would eventually become vilified and hated by most Americans by the end of his life. In later decades he would inspire Americans as diverse as Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Thomas Edison, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.

Nelson describes him as a visionary who was always ahead of his time. He was one of the first champions of equal rights by editing and publishing in his Pennsylvania Magazine "An Occasional Letter on the Female Sex," which Nelson calls "one of the first arguments in favor of women's rights in America."
Statues of Tom Paine are in Shetford, Norfolk, England; Paris; and Morristown & Bordentown, NJ.
Paine also planted some of the first seeds of the civil rights movement, seeds that would take nearly two more centuries to fully flower.

Cowritten with Thomas Pryor in November 1775, Paine (then still "Pain") wrote "African Slavery in America," an essay "that assaulted every excuse for the trade and demanded immediate emancipation of all Africans in every colony." His was a fearless defense of reason over ignorance or any other justification for human bondage, body and mind.
After Washington's army and navy defeated the British and around the time the founders created the Constitution, Paine, ever-restless and fully committed to egalitarian republicanism, sought to export the idea of individual liberty and representational government.

After the American Revolution, Paine began his "Rights of Man" to help bring democracy and individual freedoms back across the Atlantic to Europe. His ideas and the founders' ideals would eventually reach to the Pacific and beyond. Nelson writes: "Paine's 'Rights' ... brilliantly anticipated, two hundred years ahead of its time, the style of government for close to half the world's nations today."
One of his greatest and most controversial works, condemned by many who never read it, was "Age of Reason." Nelson explores the influence of deism in a chapter called, The Religion of Science: "Besides identifying the deist principles that underlay all faiths, deists suggested that Socrates, Jesus, the Buddha, and Mohammed were each attempting to return his society's corrupt religion back to its natural state -- the state of deism."

Paine's positions in "Rights" and "Reason" led to contempt and condemnation, including by John Adams and Samuel Adams, and charges of sedition in England and France, for which he faced imprisonment and near execution by guillotine.

Prison changed Paine. His disillusionment and feeling of failure were mirrored by other "founding fathers" late in their lives.
"Almost all of Thomas Paine's Enlightenment colleagues spent their last years as he did, believing that their revolutionary programs had failed, that the philosophy of the light had been proved a pipe dream, that their life's work had been entirely for naught and the great dreams of their youth would go forever unrealized. Instead, of course, it would be the shared, hopeless despair of their last years that would in time be proven 'almost categorically' the modern paradox of the world they made."
The founders were in part disillusioned by the growing aristocracy, greed, materialism, disparity of wealth, and anti-intellectualism -- what they saw as a move away from virtue and core values.
"Yet, for anyone needing to be reminded of core Enlightenment beliefs -- that government can only be empowered by its citizens; that such citizens are born with certain natural rights; that none are born superior to any other; that all will be treated equally before the law; and that the state has a duty to help the neediest of its people -- reading Paine offers a political and spiritual inspiration, one that has driven men and women to achieve greatness across history."
Nelson concludes his biography with an excerpt from the final letter written by Thomas Jefferson, "one last bravura manifesto combining the ideas of the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions, and Thomas Paine."

Jefferson called for "arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government..."

Imagine if those words and insights could be read and understood in countries harboring violent extremists like ISIS/ISIL, the self-proclaimed "Islamic State."

Nelson quotes a 2004 survey by the Freedom House human rights organization showing democratic elections in 89 countries with "freedom of expression, assembly, association, education, and religion." Sadly, the most recent Freedom House annual country-by-country report on global political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World 2014, concludes: "The state of freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2013."

Professor Eric Foner, another Paine biographer.
The Navy, working with other world navies, protects the freedoms, opportunities and "army of principles" Paine, Jefferson and the other founders achieved and that we celebrate every July 4th, "Independence Day," in the United States. Paine's description of the new nation he helped found: "the noblest work of human wisdom, the grandest scene of human glory, the fair cause of freedom..."

Nelson's "Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations" was published in 2006. It is one of dozens of biographies by great writers and thinkers like Eric Foner, Christopher Hitchens, Bertrand Russell, Owen Aldridge, David Freeman Hawke, and John Keane. The works by and about Paine are recommended reading for every world citizen interested in the concepts of virtue, freedom and individual/collective responsibility.