The Ribbon of War

On Memorializing Warfare’s Fallen Warriors

Many people have died in fulfillment of the oath they took according to the Constitution of the United States, which remained unchanged from 1789 to 1950, when it underwent a slight revision, but has remained materially the same for 227 years: namely to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic and to obey the orders of the President of the United States. Thus many would rather die than swear falsely this oath.

Glancing through the history of the United States, World War II serves as the emblem of that loyalty, wherein hundreds of thousands perished defending the Constitution from what was perceived to be an existential threat on two fronts: from Asia and from Europe. I equivocate because I sit in the luxury of being removed two generations from that perceived threat; moreover, the question is before us today, given the intricacies of international relations: can there even be such an existential threat?

Well, was there ever such an existential threat to the Constitution of the United States? Let’s say yes there was, and World War II is it. I hearken to the opening dialogue of the wonderful HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which is a dramatization of interviews conducted first by historian Stephen Ambrose, drawing from a few of his books, and supplemented by interviews conducted by the producers of the TV series.

“Get your uniforms,” someone shouts in a marketplace.


“America is in a war with Japan.”

And so it began. I am struck by this introduction: America’s population was largely surprised by the onset of war. Studying the decade leading up to Pearl Harbor, it seems obvious to me that the United States was basically inviting itself into a historic conflagration just by sheer policy moves made by a cynical government overseen by the architect of the New Deal and the packer of the Supreme Court, FDR, who, despite his pernicious ways, remained popular enough that he was in his third term as president, inviting, as I say, foreign attack. How could those who were living in that time be surprised?

Well, some were, and some weren’t. Roosevelt wasn’t that popular, and his critics were quick to point out, especially as the Pacific theater quickly turned hopeless, that this was Roosevelt’s War, that he needed it to hide his nefarious, anti-American, pro-Socialism, domestic policies, among which critics was ensconced the hero George S. Patton, named by Carlo d’Este as A Genius For War, to whom we will return momentarily.

In the meantime, our national identity given by WWII pours from the bloody victories earned at Iwo Jima, and, in particular, in the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge, which was won by the Battered Bastards of Bastogne, bloodied but unbowed. In oft-depicted scenes, we find our heroes throwing back the fierce German Wehrmacht without proper food, clothes, shoes, ammunition, weapons, or even winter coats, withstanding one of the coldest Decembers on record without the luxury of a mere campfire.

When we celebrate these heroes, for surely they were, we see them fighting against all hope, victorious by sheer American grit and fortitude, as Ambrose puts it, pitting the ideals of American freedom against the tyranny of fascism, and we won.

But why were our heroes essentially naked? Couldn’t we have won more easily with our vast resources producing fully, protected by two gigantic oceans? Why did they have to suffer, and why for so long?

Let me introduce to you one Major General John C. H. Lee, the commander of the supply army for the European Theater, disdainfully called “Jesus Christ Himself,” a man notorious for seeking the pleasures of conquest and aggrandizing all things earthly unto himself. In September of 1944, when he should have been supplying the combat armies with winter materiel, he was instead shipping tons of prefabricated housing for his officers and men, whose job it was to acquire for themselves, kicking up a share through the officers to their commander.

In other words, there was an entire army of thieves, scoundrels, and crooks given solely to creating a black market, siphoning off anything of value for their own enrichment, and at the expense of 1) the American laborer and 2) their comrades-at-arms holding the line. I repeat: an entire army of American soldiers were happy denizens of a rear-echelon empire of thievery.

Why were the 101st and the 82nd divisions rushed to Bastogne in the first place? Another army of American soldiers was in panicked retreat, wild-eyed with fear, throwing down their arms and ammunition in a bid to escape the horrors of warfare as quickly as possible. I repeat: an entire army of American soldiers was in retreat.

Patton’s rescue of the Battered Bastards of Bastogne (which has never been acknowledged as necessary by those battered bastards) is another tale of heroism. The genius for war saw that his superiors were far too complacent with the progress of war, and that their bungling of the battlefield, for political reasons, was percolating toward a sudden reversal of fortune; indeed, fortune had allowed the Allies to progress in spite of many terrible decisions, not the least of which was removing Patton from command.

The German Army never believed for one second that Eisenhower had removed Patton, the greatest general of the entire war, for the misdemeanor of slapping a soldier, considering the entire media storm to have been manufactured as a deceptive ploy. In fact, the political sensitivities of the Allies had prevailed against Patton, and the Allied advance stalled, festered, and nearly broke under the German counteroffensive.

Nevertheless, Patton, singular among the entire European command, had foreseen the counteroffensive, almost to the day and place; not only that, but he had prepared his army for it, from the top brass all the way to the common foot soldier. This “pivot,” as it is called, disengaging from the enemy on one front, marching without ceasing for forty-eight hours, and re-engaging the enemy on another front, is a marvel of warfare.

It was a few men, then, under the duress of a fanatical enemy and also in defiance of their own bureaucracy, who won the war. I’m sure there are many veterans of that war, and many fallen comrades, who fought ably and heroically, sandwiched between General J. C. H. Lee and the Battered Bastards of Bastogne who welcomed George S. Patton’s 3rd Army to the party, but without the few, the many would have foundered and failed.

Let’s say we are surprised by the perception of an existential threat in the near future. Looking around at our culture, which seems dangerously preoccupied with its genitalia and the free stuff from the government to stimulate the same, it might be difficult to believe that we would even stop gazing at our crotches long enough to raise an army for the battle. Ah, it is not the many who prevail, but the few, who carry the many, and the many thank them for preserving them in spite of thievery and onanism and cowardice.

You’ve met my friend Rafe in previous posts. He’s a real person, and he really is my friend, whom I consider to be a thoughtful eccentric, of no particular philosophy or commonly held worldview. He’s the youngest of four brothers, and he’s my age, so he won’t be one of the few of those thoughtful warriors, but a decade or two ago he would have been. He has three sons of his own, chips off the old block (with normal names), but with the same ideals, and, I think, a willingness to spearhead an assault to preserve the ideals of freedom for us who might not be so willing, and, if willing, less able.

Ever vigilant, Rafe calls them in. #turkeyhunting

I mentioned to Adam Gurri recently that Rafe has no air-conditioning in his home, and he heats his home with a wood-burning stove. And look: while Western New York might seem rural to many of you, it’s not rural. His house is situated in the country between Rochester and Buffalo, and he has five neighbors within a literal stone’s throw of his front door. Every year he has an argument with his one neighbor about whether he can track a wounded deer onto his fields, which his neighbor refuses to grant, illegally harvesting, then, the deer which Rafe shot. I digress. But it’s so un-neighborly…And in God’s America!

Anyway, I mentioned to Adam Gurri that Rafe has no AC and heats his home with a wood-burning stove, and we both thought it was hilarious that anyone would want to live like that, what with affordable thermostat-controlled environments and all.


Rafe heats his home with a wood-burning stove because he likes it, not because he’s some backwater oaf. The house, nevertheless, is unevenly heated, but such actuality creates a pattern of living in which his family thrives. And he’s not entirely brutish: he recently bought an air-conditioner, one of those interior wall-mounted doohickeys, under which we sat all day this past Sunday while Western New York roasted in temperatures rising to almost 90° (the agony!). Later on, we went outside and did some firearm target practice.

We will look to such people, in the case of a surprise existential crisis, people who are intelligent, well-read, thoughtful, morally stable, and violent. People like Rafe are like me in that they are both pessimistic about the ability of society to preserve itself and aware of the caprice of the ribbon of war. They are more than me in that they will prefer to die in spite of its caprice, hoping.

Absence of War Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

A lovely piece, over at The Illustrated Guide to Law, recommended once upon a time by our dear Spivonomist, is missing something. Heraclitus fans picked up on it almost immediately.

“Guilt Without Fault” is a fascinating learning piece concerning mens rea and the criminalization of procedural and civil violations, e.g., going to jail for innocently collecting off the ground the feather of a bird arbitrarily placed on an endangered species list, i.e., instead of a monetary judgment. Within the piece is a thorough and beautifully illustrated guide to the context of over-criminalization, including a few historical morsels.

In those morsels, Nathan Burney, the author (who does a fabulous job; I can’t gush enough over the helpfulness of his site to the likes of me), notes the build-up of certain historical anxieties, then the denouement, all of which instruct us as to our present predicament.

As we interpret the meaning of our own current events, we find ourselves talking about innocent people trying to navigate through an overly-complex social code which is enforced by armed agents of the government. You, dear reader, may recall some recent and newsworthy episodes of social and civil law being enforced by armed agents who were subsequently met with a response most criminal in nature. Burney clearly demonstrates that today’s society is not the first society to find itself mired in such a predicament, and he also gives us hope that there is a happy release from our present predicament. Nevertheless, I wonder if he has glossed over a peculiarity about those examples of happy release from over-criminalization.

For example, Burney calls to mind the dyspepsia of William Blackstone, whose thorough outcry against over-criminalization became a textbook for the founders of the United States (illustrated history of said begins here). In other words, Blackstone experienced limited success in his home England, but his ideas were influential in the newly formed United States. Unfortunately, he died in 1780, unable to witness the fruits of his labors.

Perhaps he died thinking that he actually had seen the fruits of his labors. The eradication of over-criminalization in America came by means of “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” followed by a volley of shots, then cannon fire, then cavalry charges, and finally, naval bombardment. After the British Army and the Continental Army took their turns scouring the settled regions of America, the United States was born, her people released happily from over-criminalization.


It is a running joke amongst us Sweet Talkers that some fuel, a match, and some rope will get our society where it needs to be, not to be perfect, as the utopians speak, but to be more perfect, as Abraham Lincoln taught. I don’t know that I want to see the eradication of over-criminalization. Compliance isn’t that hard, after all, especially since my refrigerator and freezer are full of food, and sports are being played without ceasing on screens throughout my house. Panem et circensibus sound ominous at first, indicating loss of something valuable, but bureaucracy creep inside my home is a welcome alternative to ashes.

Rehabilitating Neville Chamberlain

After Neville Chamberlain died of bowel cancer in November of 1940, Winston Churchill mourned him privately, “Whatever shall I do without poor Neville? I was relying on him to look after the Home Front for me.”

I think it is oft-assumed that Churchill and Chamberlain were vituperative in their antipathy toward each other. Indeed, nothing can be further from the truth. They saw the Nazi threat differently and understood history differently to the extent that one or the other of them would eventually prevail, but neither of them saw the other as a political foe, not in the sense that one should have power and the other should not. It was the magnanimity of Chamberlain that gave us Churchill to lead the Allies against Hitler; Chamberlain, when he went to King George VI to tender his resignation, stepped over the more senior politician, the more popular and more obvious candidate for Prime Minister, Lord Halifax (who was not pressing his claim to the ministry), suggesting Winston Churchill instead.


We also have the picture and the quote: “Peace in our time,” a signed document, assurances from Hitler that England and Germany would never wage war against each other. On the night of the British declaration of war against Germany, of course, Hitler sent a well-planned and well-rehearsed air raid against London. We, the beneficiaries of almost 80 years of hindsight, shake our heads with the epithet on our lips, “You idiot, how could you have ever trusted Hitler?”

The photograph, however, was taken with too narrow a field of focus to capture the enormous British zeitgeist. Chamberlain was received by England from the Munich meeting with near-universal acclaim. Note: this was after Hitler had taken the Rhineland, had absorbed Austria, had taken the Sudetenland, and had massed on the Polish border. The people cheered in the streets, a veritable sea of people, so that a nine mile journey took Chamberlain an hour and a half. The press lauded him as a hero. King George VI even wrote him a letter congratulating him on the preservation of the Empire.

A few individuals dared act contrarily, most notably Duff Cooper, who resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty, and, of course, Churchill.

Whence this national fantasy? How does history judge so harshly and so easily while those who were present almost unanimously praised him? Even the most friendly historical treatments of Chamberlain note that his reckoning of Hitler was utterly fatuous. All those cheers for so fatuous a gesture.

Any rehabilitation attempt must not seek to defend Chamberlain in an empty context, that of a leader with a set of beliefs, principles, and assumptions about the world with all the evidence laid out before him as so many archaeological artifacts. Instead, his own people, those who approved so tumultuously of his beliefs, principles, and assumptions, must be acknowledged as the sea driving him inevitably into the shoal water of history.

Who knows the ship of state is driven so by the imaginations of her own people?

Heraclitus on the Economics of Just War

“We have a hero in our military tradition by the name of Patton,” I said. It was the evening of our detoxifying day in his garden, after a light supper, and neither of us felt much like wine, so we were drinking some medicinal tea for the last of the aches and pains. I asked for more honey. “Patton said that compared to war, all human endeavors shrink into insignificance.”

“Sounds like my kind of fellow,” said the old man. In the light of the fire I could see his visage glowering over his tea.

“Yeah, Patton was a genius for war.”

He grunted, sipping.

“We were lucky that he was on our side.”

“Lucky?” he said excitedly. “I suppose next you’ll be telling me that you sacrifice to those Athenian gods of the myth instead of hearkening to the Logos, and that you’ve discovered a rationale for enslaving your fellowman.” Gosh, he was an irascible sort.

“I’m just saying that if he hadn’t been on our side, injustice would have prevailed the world over,” I replied.

“I did not know there was such a thing as a ‘side’ in warfare.”

“Well, sure there is,” I said. “The good guys are on one side, and the bad guys are on the other. Now, I know what you’re gonna say–it depends on whose side you’re on–but history has a way of sifting through the data to teach us who was bad and who was good.”

“I have no doubt you are correct,” he said. “I had never considered that minor detail of the thing.” I was hooked, and he tugged on the line. “You have obviously not considered that there is no such thing as a ‘side’ in warfare. Is that the normal terminology for combatants? ‘You’re on that side; I’m on this side’?”

“Well, no. We call it a front.”

“That’s right: the front lines. And the lines move. When the lines move, the sides change. Whoever was on ‘that side’ is now on ‘this side.’ Once upon the side of justice, now upon the side of injustice. Such foolishness, war, if there is such a thing as ‘sides.'”

“I thought you were for war,” I inquired.

“Who is for war? Why do you keep saying that? Do I appear to you as some sort of warmonger, a broker of power among the nations? Drawing lines upon which to do battle? I am not for war, but war is for me.”


“If you listen very carefully,” he continued, “you may actually catch wind of the Persian machine for war even now. These rapscallion youths protesting my brother’s wise conscription policies will set all of Ionia aflame, and the Persian King will feel the need to put it out. I desire to understand the nature of the flame, as it is an element which dries out the soul, and war rides the flame as a locust horde rides the wind. Taxes, you know.”

“Yeah,” I said, but I felt a protest forming in my gullet. “Is there no case for a defensive war?”

“Ah, defensive war,” he chuckled. “Otherwise known as the slaughter of your own innocents. War is not like, upon seeing the storm upon the horizon, battening down the hatches and waiting it out, looking for luck to bail the water from your holds; war must be participated in, or you will certainly be consumed. You must slash and burn, drive, thrust, parry, or the child cannot be born.”

Dammit all, a child?

“Grow up,” he said, and he said it like it was a curse. “The infantryman tells himself he is following orders to defend his king, his farm, his wife, his children, but he is not: he is thrusting another man through. He knows it is so, and his children know it is so, and his wife even more so, as he writhes in his bed beside her, trying to kill them all all over again, night by night, from the time he is young until he is very old. He knows he has killed, and he knows the lust for blood that rose into his mind, that it came from him. Perhaps he finds someone to forgive him.”

“But–” I started to say, but he was warming to the task.

“Perhaps he prefers to throw missiles from afar–a bowman or a catapult man. Who is on the other side of those walls? Women and children? No? They should have been evacuated; the blood is on the head of the city fathers. And when fire comes from the city toward the attacking catapult, does the same blood lust not rise? But it rises in defense of justice, no?”

I sat silently, feeling my tea cool. It was for the better; the tea was awful.

“You participate in war, you participate in injustice. Justice is the thing that springs up after the front lines have moved and scattered, like seedlings of the springtime after the rains.”

“But,” I protested, “we do not all participate in war.”

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Tonawanda,” I said.

“Is Tonawanda such a gracious and magical land that you do not pay taxes?” he asked. “And those taxes are not apportioned for the training of the machines of war?”

“No,” I said. “But perhaps I should move to the land adjacent, the land of Canada, where they do not have a military, and all their taxes are apportioned for the welfare of their subjects.”

Even in the dim firelight I could see the twinkle spark from within his eyes. He said, “Indeed. And how does this paradise Canada-land compare to your fair Tonawanda-land?”

“Well, it’s about a tenth of the size.”

“Mhm,” he said, mockingly.

“What’s more…” I said.

“What’s more?” he mocked further.

“Yes,” I said. “What’s more, their beer is taxed such that they sneak into Tonawanda on a regular basis to buy all of ours to spirit it back into their paradise.”

“They are a virtuous people, indeed,” he said, leaning back in his chair, retiring for the night.


In the Garden of Heraclitus

On the Innateness of Fundamentalism

We took a break from gladdening our hearts, as the ancients call drinking too much wine, to cure our hangovers by sweating them out in the garden. A gust from the sea blew a bean from my hand just as I was tightening my fingers upon it to pick it.  I sighed, stood up to stretch my back, and marveled at my headache.

“In March,” Heraclitus said, “if you do not march to war, you turn over your garden plot. They are the same thing.”

“No, no, no, no, no,” I said. “OK, yes, but no. Stop doing that!”

“My brother was overjoyed when I abdicated the throne in his favor–the throne: a footstool for Cyrus, I must say–until he discovered that conscription was his responsibility.”

“Do what now?” I asked.

“The ‘King of Ionia’ is responsible for conscripting soldiers for the Great King of Persia,” he replied. “That’s what all the hullabaloo is about, the democratic mob. The Great Tyrant is the Great Freedom, just so long as you mouth a few obsequiousnesses his direction, sending some gold along with a few girls and boys, you know, to linger behind his chariot and to run ahead of his chariot, to eat a few spears.” He stretched his back, looking toward the sea with that ever-disgusted look on his face.

“You’re making that up!” I exclaimed.

“Which part?” he asked. Which part? The whole thing! My head hurt too much to make my mouth do the argument. He continued, saying, “My brother is a fool, not just for being so eager for the throne–and I’m grateful he was fool enough to do so–but also because he kept picking poor boys and girls to carry the gold to ‘The Ones Having a Friend’s Mind.'”

“Because they kept skimming from the gold on the way there?”

“Are you daft?” he snapped. “Do you think at all before you flap your big dumb gums? No! Because the rich kids stay home to learn nothing of war and sex, spending their time onanistically, conceiving nothing except the notion to throw off the yoke of the Great Freedom.”

“The poor probably have less stable home lives,” I said.

“Indeed,” he retorted. “Divorce is rampant, death is prevalent, and unhappiness spreads like fertilizer. Those boys and girls serve now in the presence of the Great King in utter peace and tranquility.”

“Except for the forced warfare.”

“Small price.”

“But,” I said, “your brother has preserved stability, not just of the families of the nobility, but also of your fair city; he did so by preserving the stability of your most valuable citizens.”

“Did he?”

“I’m here now, aren’t I? And watching the sea, and drinking wine, and picking beans in your garden. That ain’t exactly servitude to no stinkin’ king, now is it?”

“Stick around,” he said. He suddenly looked old. “Stick around and see what foolishness the notion of ‘stability’ is become.” He practically spat the word. “The Friend’s Mind has changed, and he is already gathering his captains, and they are gathering their myriads, and they will soon march. At that time, we will not turn over a single stone in our gardens, despite our great desire to do so. They will drink our wine and throw every pot of ours into the sea, leaving our bodies to be scoured by the poor and the sun.”

giant jenga

“That’s not quite fair to your brother,” I said. “The rich kids did this. Wouldn’t they have rebelled one way or the other?”

“Oh,” he sighed. “I suppose so. Don’t you think, however, that his fixation on stability brought about utter destruction where there may have been hope for mere unrest? But you’re right: among a thousand men there might be one who is wise.”

“So,” I said, “we are rich and we are poor.”


“We are at peace and we are at war.”

“Your hangover is not doing your contemplating any favors,” he said. “Leave the conundrums to the wise.”

“At-peace-those-being are indeed warring.”

“Better,” he said, “but please stop.”

“A garden flourishes after letting the soil lie fallow for a year,” I said.

“Why won’t you stop?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I’m serious. Haven’t you seen a garden plot the year after letting it lie fallow? Everything grows as if under some sort of magical growth spell, not the least of which are the weeds, but also the herbs, vegetables, and flowers.”

He stood staring at me, bemused, pressing his lips together, then looking into the clouds. “True enough,” he said. “But I don’t want to let my garden lie fallow.”


Heraclitus The Happy

“They call you the Weeping Philosopher,” I said sometime during the wee hours that first night I got there.

“Nincompoops!” he said. “I’m one of the happiest people I know.”

The map is deceiving, how far east you must travel to get to Ephesus. Rome is right there, with Athens a hoplite’s skip away, and then, it seems, there’s Ephesus, where Heraclitus makes his home, which, by the way, is situated along the Mediterranean facing west, due west. He has a lovely cedar patio for a roof, complete with a fireplace surrounded by cedar furniture with down-padded cushions and a servant always in attendance to fetch us more wine and the occasional morsel of cheese and bread. Nevertheless, when you deplane in Athens, Ephesus is still a long way to the east, especially once you board the oxcart that gets you through the mists of time. The names are all Greek, but the land is all Anatolia. Moreover, there’s a distinctive gilding to everything, every road, every building, every conversation. The din of the Mediterranean West gives way to something more polite, measured, neighborly.

We propped our feet up on the railing while we listened to the ocean wash the rocks below, and I said, “Happy people don’t hate Athens like you do.”

Without looking at me, he put down his skin of wine, took his station at the railing, lifted his chiton, and urinated into the ocean. “I think ‘hatred’ is a rather weak attempt at capturing my utter contempt for those Athenian scum-sucking pigs,” he said. “Did you see how the wind pushed my golden river a few degrees to the south? Follow that river, and you’ll find Athens, where you’ll agree that micturition is only the smallest font of their many and varied stenches.” Then he added, “Besides, I’m not a philosopher. Philosophers have to know too much. Moreover, you’ve had too much to drink, and you’ve become a terrible guest. By sleeping you may help work out those things coming to pass in the world. So do us both a favor, all right?”

The next morning came at midday, and I had a headache. I was in no mood to eat, talk, or drink, so I sat under the sun, watching the ocean roll in from Athens.

“Wet soul?!?” I heard him shout, to my great discomfort. “The soul needs to be dried out by wine, as I told you, but it has a saturation point, whereupon it becomes wet again.”

“I feel like death,” I croaked.

“Perhaps your soul is not as wet as I thought,” he said. “You’re in good shape, then.” And he sat down, eating a bowl of yogurt with blueberries and, I think, grass. Between bites, he pontificated. “Cyrus brought friendship, you see, not conquest. There was virtually no war. The Haxamanis literally says, in Persian, ‘Having a friend’s mind,’ and that’s what they were all about. They settled affairs in their own country, working their way west while folding nations into their friendship like folding whipped goat’s milk into honey-beaten egg yolks.”

Cyrus the Great Standard
The standard of Cyrus the Great

He paused for a moment. “Grated nutmeg on top. Can you taste it? Delicious.” Whatever it was I was tasting at the moment was bilious, so I bade him continue.

“When they arrived here, in these parts, they met their first real resistance.”

“Because Hellas is hella!” I said. He ignored me, scraping the bottom of his bowl of grass-yogurt with his spoon.

“Athens, in the meantime, was having one bacchanal after another, their noble aristocracy dancing before their idols upon the backs of the farmers their families enslaved only two generations hence. Cyrus desired to set them free and end usury.”

“End usury? How would business get done?”

“Usury, the Haxamanis say, is the Lie. Debt is a force pushing forward deception, both on the part of the lender and the borrower, and the Lie, when it comes to property, creates slavery and imprisons innocent men. How can a man pursue arete when he is imprisoned by the Lie? How can he be human when he is on a leash?”

Very sobering, I thought to myself. I asked, “How did the resistance go?”

“We here, thankfully, are Persian, but only for the moment. Ionians are as witless as Atticans, driving off anyone with any sense at all. My teacher Xenophanes has made himself naked with them, to my great shame. We Greeks want our slaves. Darius will spill much Greek blood to set them free, but we will spill much Persian blood to keep them. Those Dionysian feasts are something to behold; and they call him ‘The Liberator.'”

“Haven’t you said that ‘all things the fire, when it comes upon them, will adjudge and seize for itself’?”

“Something like that,” he replied. “But who wants that?”

“I thought you would.”

“Perhaps I do. So it comes, the injustice of war to make the injustice of slavery come to an end, and then we will have justice for a time, while they grapple with one another, intertwined, for mastery.”

For some time while Heraclitus was lecturing I felt in my belly a compassion that had sprung for the farmers who had been enslaved, and it rose. There it was again, much higher, manifesting itself next to the beating within my breast. It was hatred.


 Fragments Consulted


It needs be that by having inquired well of very many things men are philosophers —On Nature, Fragment XLIX

Those who sleep are laborers and co-laborers of the things coming to pass in the world —Fragment XC

Stupidity is better to conceal, but it’s quite the labor when relaxing also with some wine. —Fragment CVIII

A dry soul is wisest and best —Fragment LXXIV

All things the fire, when it comes upon them, will adjudge and seize for itself. —Fragment XXVI

War is Good for Me

An application of the teachings of heraclitus

The Centennial Celebration of the commencement of WWI has brought out more than the usual decrying of the Great War and all its benefits, merely because a handful of people died in an untimely manner, the culture of Europe was mildly affected, and the seeds were sown for another cleansing in the near future. Here at Chez Duke, on the other hand, we exult in the little snot who pulled off the assassination of whatshisname, not because we have an affinity with turn-of-the-century anarchism, nor because we have a bœuf bourguignon with the Kaiser’s domestic policies, sacre bleu! No, we are popping the corks of many champagne bottles because the scouring of Europe sucked my grandfather from his idyllic childhood into a world of pain.


He was married, so that means he was born somewhere in the early 1890s, and off he went, to participate in the chain of familial military service unbroken since the beginning of time, even resuming in the War Against That Protestant Usurper, a.k.a. the American Revolutionary War, under the flag of the French King (Jacobin, Jacobite, Jacobik: tomato, tomahto; let’s hear it for Bonapartite hegemony!), where he was shot in the back by the Bosch in a terribly unfair ambush and left for dead beneath a pile of corpses. After some time (a day? two days?) he was found, alive, indeed, but gravely wounded in his man parts. He would live, but he would never, but never, beget a child, so the doctors told him. His wife heard of it and took the liberty of remarrying.

He sat down to a delicious homecoming meal with his wife, who received him with joy and thanksgiving, preparing a menu complete from soup to nuts. She developed a neat culinary shortcut, making the soup to be also the nuts, including in it a healthy dose of arsenic, which he somehow detected before he ingested a lethal dose, and he began to yell. The yelling attracted the more recent husband, who appeared in the dining room in a rather animated state, and, weakened by a morphine addiction, my grandfather departed hastily.

My great-grandmother, against her husband’s wishes, counseled her son to pursue a career as a Methodist Preacher, bundling him off to Southern Methodist University, where he found atheism, which caused him to be bundled back east, but only so far as Memphis, where he became a trolley-car driver. By some cruel twist of fate, he accidentally ran over a negro child’s head, killing him instantly before my grandfather’s eyes. He again found himself departing with haste, disappearing from the knowledge of all who knew him and loved him. Was he dead?

No, he was married. In Tupelo, Mississippi, near the birthplace of Elvis Presley (my grandmother says she knew him when he was a wee lad), Uncle Joe, as my grandfather’s moniker came to be, found an Indian woman–Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, or Creek; we don’t know–to be his wife. We do know that the Great Depression forced him out of hiding in Mississippi back to the bustling little railroad town of Cullman, Alabama, back home to his mama, hauling himself upon the veranda with his dark-skinned wife and his five children. “You have more black brothers and sisters than you do white,” he’d say when his mixed-race white children would utter unspeakable racist epithets under his shanty roof (“The Old Homeplace,” they called it. Thankfully, it burned to the ground during the night a few days after he died. My grandmother was outside with the twelfth child in her arms before the alarm was raised).

It is said that when his mother, who carried all the names of all the women in her family stretching back to the Mayflower, saw her beloved Messiah-son with that Indian woman and those half-breed children, all thirteen names screamed at once. She fainted. Son-no-longer-Messiah was dismissed, sent away to fend for himself. He did so, fathering seven more legitimate children by the railroad tracks, the ninth of whom was my father, born in 1941, when my grandfather was fifty years old.

In those intervening years, Uncle Joe had thought it wise to begin treating the morphine addiction he had acquired in France in the Army hospital. Self-medication was all he could afford in those heady days of Depression, so he developed an appreciation for something called Wildcat Whiskey. I don’t know if that was a brand-name moonshine or just a northern Alabama variety of distilled corn mash, but it burned hot, chasing away every Baptist preacher who came to condemn him for his wicked ways. The Lutheran preacher, on the other hand, found that Wildcat Whiskey reminded him of the wild winters of his childhood in Wisconsin, so he had the currency to talk Uncle Joe into allowing him to proselytize the Indian woman and the younger five children of the brood. Indeed, Dad was baptized a Lutheran–a Lutheran!–in Alabama, 1946. Are you doing the math? Lutherans and Catholics were on the same low rung in that heavily stratified society, but still one rung up above the Jews, who were just one rung off the ground, and above–you know. Ugh. A half-breed Lutheran in north central Alabama.

Wildcat Whiskey, such as it is, burns in all directions, and Uncle Joe meted out all his wrath on everyone around him, beginning with his family. To escape this horrible, sick, existence, my dad (may he rest in peace) married a pretty little German girl who was visiting her Aunt who had married a G.I. from Cullman, Alabama during the second, and lesser, world war. He rode her wings out of that life, eventually begetting me in 1973. My mother’s story is far more complex and layered than my dad’s (hint: her parents were true Aryans, even after the very end); I don’t understand it nearly as well yet.

In the meantime, I raise another glass of champagne to you, you millions who perished in the trenches, to the institutions which were utterly shattered, to World War One, without which I would not exist, and that is unthinkable.


Heraclitus Fears Not The Reaper

To get to Heraclitus’ hovel, drive east, way east, and onto some back roads, back to about 500 B.C.E., hang a right toward the Mediterranean, which belongs to Persia at the moment, and look for the sun-blessed property with the open-aired architecture gilded with flames overlooking the sea, and you’re there. When I went to visit, the only radio station I could coax into my ox-cart was some hippie-rock music, blaring Edwin Starr’s version of “War.” What is it good for? (Primal and thrusting grunt), absolutely nothin’; say it again! That was provocative enough, I think, to fetch the old man, and he came storming down the stairs from his deck-patio, bounding over his novelty river to walk at too brisk a pace for my comfort straight at me, shouting to be heard over the radio:

War is for the common good, and strife is the right order of things. In fact, all things come to pass according to strife and are actually made useful.

“All things?” I asked. At that very moment (let the reader understand that I swear by all that is holy and good: what I’m about to tell you really happened), “War” came to an end, yielding to John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.” Before I could manage to switch off the radio, the old man spoke:

If I didn’t already know that justice comes from injustice, I would drown myself in my own river for despair.”

“Yeah,” I said. “We all really hate that song.”

“All of you?” he asked.

“Well, only the dead like it.”


“Indeed,” he said, perking up.

The immortal are mortals, the mortal immortals, by actually living the death of those and by actually dying the life of the others.

I stared at him, and the blankness of my mind became apparent on my face. He showed mercy to me, saying, “Wanna come in?”

We climbed atop his hovel which staved off the sea and invited in the air, sat down together around a fire pit, and he handed me a skin of wine. “You know,” he said. “You can never drink the same wine twice.” He chuckled at his own joke while I took a drink, staring at him while he stared at the sea. “Bowdlerizing my hard work,” he mumbled. “There’s lots more wine where that came from.”

“It’s good,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Life is good, if you’re willing to die like that grape. Taste how good it is! You are that grape.” He leaned over to me, whispering, “Be the grape.” I began to suspect he had had a skin or two already. “That wine,” he continued, “will dry out your soul; then you’ll be ready to live the death of those who are mortal.”

“That shouldn’t be too difficult, with a headache like that.”

“No more difficult than standing in front of an advancing army.”

“So we’re back to that again,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, waving his hand toward the sea. “Everybody gets so upset about war, the cruelty of it all, the pain, the destruction. Generally speaking, however, you’re on one side of the advancing army or the other. You can’t have a life without strife. Now, most of us enjoy a life in behalf of someone who died. Hopefully our army was able to make more live per death than their army, but cruelty, pain, destruction–the injustice of war–burns away infestations of injustice so that justice is born anew.”

“So we should wish for war?”

He sighed, “It’s a metaphor, dummy. Warfare and strife is a part of every day life. ‘Real’ warfare is a pedagogue, a headmaster of pain and inevitability, to teach us what it is we are experiencing from the moment our dreams cease until they commence again. And then we lie down to sleep forevermore, joining the chorus of the waters.”

“War is just a metaphor?”

“Just?” he repeated. “Aren’t you listening? The little indignities of this daily life gather themselves up until they are an army marching from town to town, turning over every stone, smashing down every door, and burning every stump and every field of stubble. Thus it must be; if it is not so, the little indignities persevere, as blight perseveres in the soil over the coldest and cruelest winter. Only all-consuming fire restores the garden. This town, in fact, is built upon heaps of rubble and ash, great kings whose names are forgotten causing men to throw down every stone and every skull because of some forgotten injustice. How much more beautiful are the sunsets from these heights, thanks to the cruelty of war, like the time I accidentally smashed a potted plant at the marketplace!”

“Potted plant?”

“You’re the one who thinks that war is just a metaphor,” he said. “In my own mind I was entirely justified to knock down the potted plant. She had it placed in too precarious a spot, and I refused to replace the pot–neither the plant, be it damned to everlasting perdition–nor did I apologize to that gap-toothed, gray-bearded old lady, wretched beast. She had the nerve to drag me before the magistrate, whereupon I argued my case that I ought to have been able to have had the freedom to move my elbow to acquire the necessary silver from my coin purse in exchange for some delicious dates–and I used every other kind of wince-inducing syntax to make the case that I was too dignified to be brought so low by such a waste of vapors, this market-making she-monster. The magistrate looks at her, looks at me, and says, ‘I find in favor of the plaintiff; moreover, your recalcitrance earns you the opportunity to pay her court fee as well as yours.’ Oh, the indignity!”

“What did you do?”

“I paid the fine,” he said, “and the court fees. What else was I gonna do?” He looked over at me. I was looking at him, waiting for him to impart some profundity. “Drink your wine,” he said. I lifted the skin to my mouth and swallowed. He turned his chair toward me, saying, “Do you get it?”

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