Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Forever Fools

My pals jim and Lisa over at Ranger Against War have a nice vituperative little post up discussing the bizarre success of Newt Gingrich (or, as Charlie Pierce likes to tag him: "N. Leroy Gingrich, Definer of Civilization's Rules and Leader (Perhaps) of the Civilizing Forces") in portraying his 1%-wealthy-Beltway-insider, perpetual-staff-banging-serial-adulterer self as a good ol' Christian Boy to the good people of the great State of Florida.

My friends speculate that:
"...(t)hese are not fit people and would in fact do well to walk, but have bought into a society which has effectively rendered them hostage to Big Pharma and Big Agra. They feel impotent -- often are -- and out of frustration will vote on seeming kinship alone, so disenfranchised are they from the system. Maybe someone who looks like he has to take the same statin drugs or eats the same fast food will feel their pain."
It's a great post, and well worth the reading.

But, in the tradition of how many words is the worth of a single picture, all I can say is:Do we really need to know more about the U.S., circa 2012, than that people are willing to both purchase, and, worse, leave the house, in something like that?

For this, men and women gave their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to wrest independence from Great Britain? For this, whole families suffered in the coal mines, men died builing the intercontinental railroads, sacrificed and bled to win the terrible World Wars?

For this?


Update 1/31 PM: Speaking of Chas, here he is in brilliant form, discussing Santorum, the - excuse the expression - hindmost ass in the GOP Florida donkeyshow:
"He had the right to expect better than to be reduced to being the undercard in the low-class donkeyshow into which the "fight" between Romney and Gingrich has devolved. Two colossal fakes, one with more money, gulling the rubes by pretending in many cases to be what Rick Santorum has been his entire career, for good and ill. Meanwhile, Santorum is the purest product out there of what the conservative movement transformed the Republican party to produce. It may, in fact, be true that Rick Santorum is too much of a modern Republican for the modern Republican party to nominate. He may be the mirror into which his party is afraid to gaze."
Hard not to wince in recognition.

Yep. We truly are well on the road to being irrecoverably fucked; having a third of the electorate harking after clowns, fools, charlatans, and grifters is the broad, smooth road to Hell and there is no disguising that.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Tales from the Trail 1: The Mad Shitter

Fort Leonard Wood was fucking cold.

We were there in November, and I was told by the Leonard Wood cognoscenti that FLWM had two seasons; summer, and fucking cold. And at the moment it was fucking cold, and so was I.

But a drill sergeant is expected to be as impervious to cold as he or she is supposed to be immune to fatigue, fear, and uncertainty. Whatever else a trainee soldier may see during his or her Basic, they are not supposed to see a drill sergeant acting tired, afraid, or confused.

Or cold.

So I stood outside the nice, warm instructor's hut out in the middle of the scraggly woods on Range 37 and tried to look warm.

I was detailed as the company dogsbody that day; driver, runner, assistant Senior Drill; whatever was needed, that was what I was. But that morning the company commander had his own priorities, and they had nothing to do with my assigned duties.

"Sergeant Lawes," CPT Crowne asked sotto voce, "where, right now, at this very moment, is the Shitter?"

Now a normal, sane human being, hearing that, would have pointed the officer in the general direction of the latrines over by the woodline to the southwest. But a normal, sane human being would not understood that that term, at that particular time and place, had nothing to do with a place. It was a person.

PVT Flux wanted to be a soldier more than he wanted anything in the world.

Other eighteen-year-olds wanted a muscle car. Or a ridiculously awesome gaming system. Or to get inside the scented panties wrapped around the taut haunches of Suzy Creemcheese, Prairie Homecoming Queen and pride of West Lynn.

Not Joey Flux. He wanted a Combat Infantryman's Badge with two stars.

So he threw his gawky, badly-formed body at Basic Training like a spastic berserker, punishing himself and the equipment he fought to overcome. He was awkward at drill, slow and uncoordinated at PT, painfully incapable of the simplest military tasks.

But, oh, how he wanted to be a soldier. If desire, will and love alone could have been the masters Joey Flux would have been fucking Audie Murphy.

But mere military incapacity was not the impediment; this was the volunteer Army, and the numbers had to pass muster if even the slowest recruit had to be pencil-whipped on to their units. Let the gaining units chapter the poor bastard out, was the general opinion; they had nothing better to do. Here at BCT, Ft. Leonard Wood Missouri, we were in the business of making shit into soldiers and, by God, soldiers or one sort or another they would be.

But not in this case.

In this case, it WAS the shit that was the problem.

Because, you see, PVT Flux had problems beyond his ineptitude at D&C, general subjects, and PT.

He had an incurable inability to control his bowels around authority.

I'm not talking about a fear of truly Olympian power; a lurking dread of having his heels locked by the Chief of the Army Staff or the Post Commander. Merely being addressed sharply by SP4 Joremy, the orderly room clerk, would put Flux in a state of immediate knee-knocking terror. And if he was addressed by someone as exalted and terrifying as a drill sergeant he would nearly faint with panic.

For PVT Flux officers were pure, blind, sphincter-loosening nightmare.

The first time he demonstrated his peculiar affliction was when he was stopped by one of the cadre lieutenants while scurrying into a classroom early in cycle. He apparently hoped to avoid the august notice of this lesser god by lowering his head and speeding up to double-time, but he had made the mistake of passing alone and the officer must have been bored, or feeling shirty, because he halted Flux to harass him for not saluting.

I was told that the second john mistook Flux's look of panic for military intensity, and so stood awaiting the required gesture of respect which was, indeed, rendered with trembling hand. But it was accompanied by a sound not unlike the sudden tearing of rotten burlap, and both young soldiers were enveloped in a choking miasma of used chili mac and assorted secondhand GI chow.

The 2LT recoiled in loathing, and Flux's drill sergeant descended on him with fire and brimstone. This, needless to say, didn't help. The poor youth, having voided everything he could, merely subsided in a heap and had to be helped into the squad bay and hosed down in the shower.

Well, things went to hell after that. The wretched kid was beyond embarrassed, his superiors were roughly equally divided into horrified, disgusted, or amused. They tried, I'm told, everything they could think of. But the poor guy just pooped everytime he caught a glint of rank. He was hopeless.

By the time my USAR unit arrived to shepherd the young men of A/3/10 through two weeks of Basic Rifle Marksmanship poor Flux had experienced several more of these incidents, had been referred to Community Mental Health, and had been assessed unfit for service. It wasn't for lack of trying; I spoke gently to the poor kid, and he really, REALLY wanted to go on. It wasn't in his mind but in his bowels that the fear of military authority was so terrifying.

It was pure hindbrain - the caveman instinct when the sabertooth was on the slope above the trail, the direwolf glaring from the cleft of the rock. At the moment he was confronted by the menace of rank his monkey brain simply took over, and his monkey ass provided him with something to throw, perhaps. Or made him too noisome to be worth predating. Or something.

I really have no idea.

But the other victim of this sad little psychological drama was my commander. I'm not sure to this day if it started with CPT Crowne's predecessor but I've always suspected that this hearty sportsman, bursting with corn-fed Midwestern brio, took one look at the weedy little man who showed up to replace him and proceeded to take the mickey out of my boss with stories of the Mad Shitter and his insane desire to defecate on every officer of the United States Army.

From what I could tell from that moment, in the mind of CPT Crowne, PVT Flux occupied the same place that the hashishin of Alamut came to represent in the minds of 12th Century Crusaders, or the kamikazi in the estimation of the sailors of the U.S. Pacific Fleet; a frightful nightmare, the walking embodiment of sudden and unexpected horror.

My commander apparently pictured this poor wretch as some sort of walking bomb packed with deadly feces and fuzed to explode at the merest sight of an insignia of commissioned rank. That he was trapped in a BCT company with a home-grown Sunni suicide shit-bomb. CPT Crowne seemed to believe that the Mad Shitter lurked in ambush in every billet room or behind every blind corner of every training area, awaiting the opportunity to turn his back and hew down a selflessly-serving Reserve officer (married! with children! a churchgoer! Republican!) with his fearsome anal Claymore.

This dreadful fate so consumed his imagination that by the fourth day of our rotation the man was utterly useless and remained so the entire cycle. When he wasn't funking about looking for the Mad Shitter he was worrying about where poor Flux was and coming up with schemes to remove one or the other of them from each other's proximity, and that's what he was worrying about at the moment instead of the cold.

"Sergeant Lawes, here's what you need to do." he hissed, his eyes darting about like a ferret's in a cage, "You need to find the Shitter, and you need to take him back to the company area. Now."

I looked at the poor sod with as much pity as I could muster beyond my own chill. This is what the hell the Army has come to. Bill Calley and now this. Christ on a fucking pogo stick.

"Well, actually, sir, I need to remain with the trainees. The CUCV is the designated evacuation vehicle in case of an injury, you may recall."

CPT Crowne glared at me, his slitted lids almost hiding the panic in his mustelid eyes.

"All right, sergeant, if you're going to be that way. Inform Senior Drill that my CP will be in the cadre office until the trainees return to their bivouac site."

Yeah, the only place on the entire range where young PVT Flux can't go, you poor weasel, I thought, but gave him my best SFC Nelson salute, holding it until he turned and scampered away.

Poor Flux. He was still there, on medical hold awaiting his release from Active Duty on a Chapter 11 (Unsuitable to the Needs of the Army), when my two-week rotation ended and I got on the bus headed back to Portland.

I never found out what became of the Terror of the Tenth Infantry, the scourge of the shoulder insignia, the briefly notorious trainee soldier known to legend simply as the Mad Shitter.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Army I Knew: BCT

We left off here almost exactly one year ago, with the cadre of A Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd (Basic Training) Brigade descending on the poor fools - among which I was one of the relatively-average-foolish - arriving from Ft. Dix Reception Station.

Basic Training - at least, the Basic Training they were running at Ft. Dix in the Eighties, was almost exactly what you would expect if you've seen a handful of movies or television shows or talked to someone who had been through it. It relies on the gullibility and fearfulness of late-teenagers and early adults who can be frightened into doing exactly what they are told. A handful are too stubborn, or too broken, to do even this, and they are, usually, quickly disposed of - although one day I'll tell you the story of Ft. Benning and the Mad Shitter.

But the rest is a tale as old as the Army and not really worth repeating. Yes, they made us do pushups. Yes, we had to go a lot of places in formations, and sit through classes, and go bivouac on the rifle range (and Ft. Dix in January is fucking cold and don't let anyone kid you) and were dosed with CS "tear" gas, and all the comic book and movie stuff. Suffice to say we got through it and moved on, and I'd be very surprised if any of us who went through "Coldsteel Alpha" that chilly winter of 1981 have spent much time or mental coin thinking back on it.So let me just tell you some stories from that time and place.

First, a little note about what we wore.

Trust me, this is not becoming a fashion blog. It's just that of all the aspects of my BCT the one thing that sets us apart in my mind is that we were the last of a long history of GIs to wear the O.D. green that had symbolized the Arsenal of Democracy since 1941.Specifically, we wore the OG-107 fatigue uniform, better known as the just "fatigues" or as the "pickle suit". We wore the rubber-sole black "boot, combat" that had been standard since the Fifties, and the whole ensemble was topped off with one of the most ridiculous items of headwear ever invented by the U.S. Army, the OG-106 "baseball cap".The cardboard stiffener in front was designed to get bent into all sorts of moronic looking shapes, and the fake-leather band was sweat-droolingly hot in summer and icy cold in winter.

The thing is, the pickle suit had been a very stylin' outfit. The drill sergeants nearly all had the old all-cotton versions from the Sixties. These typically faded to a pale green and took starch like a Congressmen to a lobbyist's cashbag; they could be creased to razor sharpness and looked terrific. Our later, cotton-polyester, like nearly all polyester products from the Seventies, looked, well, like shit, especially if you threw in the moronic cap.

But that was just for the guys. Really, let's not even talk about what may have been the most horrible atrocity committed by the U.S. Army outside of My Lai; the female summer Class A uniform, otherwise known as the "Slimey Limey", a jaw-droppingly ugly "mint green polyester knit skirt and jacket uniform" that would have worked spectacularly as birth control device for Messalina or any of the other great horizontals of history. On a normal American woman it looked like leprous death, was universally despised, and was perhaps the only reason the gals looked forward to going into the AG-44 Army Greens.

But back to the issue of O.D.; in our fatigues we looked like GIs had since North Africa, we were living a great tradition and an honorable lineage so, being GIs, we all hated the pickle suit and longed after the cool camouflage uniforms that the Marines had.

Had we known that the BDU was going to be that uniform, well...I'll leave that for another day.

The one other big difference in my BCT was a less permanent one. We had a "mixed" company, men and women together.

This was all part of the post-Vietnam VOLAR experiment and one that wrapped up soon thereafter. I have no idea which genius thought that the ladies from 1st "Fox" Platoon would live as chaste and stainless as the Sisters of Charity right upstairs from 2nd "Flame" and 3rd "Herd" where the lusty lads were bunked, but the fireguards on the landings were meeting cute every night, and I was told later that the unoccupied cadre rooms down at the end of the 1st Platoon floor were like a Fellini movie from midnight to first call.

But I never got in on all this hearty wooing; I was first a squad leader, then the platoon guide (trainee platoon sergeant) and was excused duty keeping the watches of the night and all that healthy young American soldier girl lovin'. All I remember it got me in return was the headaches of nannying forty other ignorant young people and Private Skrodinsky, the platoon's living Polack joke.

There was this time when Skrogie, cleaning his rifle, was showing the Kim brothers how the buffer spring could be compressed all the way down the buffer and (through an excess of CLP, or so he claimed later) shot the thing out the second-floor window into the truckbed of Drill Sergeant Reynold's truck...

...But that was later.Anyway, we managed to fumble through what I now recognize was a pathetically inadequate entry training, learning just enough to have gotten us killed within a day or so of genuine combat. But keep in mind we were the ash and trash of the Army; cooks, clerks, medics, truck drivers. The Army saw no reason - having forgotten the lessons of Vietnam and unseeing the ruinous guerilla wars to come - in teaching us REMFs how to really fight. After all, that was what Eleven-Bullets were for.Funny, when I think back on the time now I have a vague memory of cold, and being constantly a little tired, and of poor instruction inadequately delivered. And of a handful of memorable events, some because of the place, some for the people, some for the pure weirdness of them.

The Night of Sergeant Layne was one of the latter.

SSG Ricardo Layne was the junior drill sergeant for 2nd Platoon - this being a time when the Army was working under short commons each platoon had two instead of the authorized three - and was a native of some sort of Caribbean country. He was very tall, very black, and spoke, when at all, with a distinctive island accent.

SSG Layne was the "good cop" to SFC Nelson's "bad cop" - he was the cool, calm one next to the platoon sergeant's gruffness.

So it came as something of a surprise to hear him roaring at us in the middle of a dark February night.

We formed up in the hallways outside our barrack rooms in our skivvies, shivering and clueless, as he ramped and roared up and down the shiny linoleum, inching our toes away from the jump boots that glittered like black diamonds, even on pre-dawn CQ. It took some time for us to understand what he was furious about, and even longer to really "get" the impact of his fury, but finally we got it - we had used all the week's ration of toilet paper.

Remember, this was before the fat times; we were still "Carter's Army", still poor, still skimping to get by. We only got so much bog roll, and here it was almost Thursday and it had all disappeared up our capacious backsides.

"Joo pipple..."
Layne ranted,
"...joo 'ave been ussing en-tirely too mooch toilet pepper. Now Aye am not shoore if t'is is doo to joo pipple 'ave been inadequately instroocted in de joose of de Joo Ess Army toilet pepper, or because joo is joost full of chit. Dat doan matter, because dis is de last toilet pepper joo will get until NEXT week, and joo will 'ave to learn to use eet correctly or joo will just 'ave to use joor entrenching tool, which of course joo will clean properly afterwords..."
I'm not sure what happened after that; I think we went back to try and get another hour or two's rack. And we didn't run out of buttwipe again.

But he sure was mad.

Of course, it wasn't just us fucking up.

One afternoon late in the three-month training cycle (so it must have been some time late in March) the three of us platoon guides were told to have our units "in the classroom" after noon chow for some reason. So at 1300, good as gold, all three little soldiers called their units to atention, put them "at ease" and turned around to await their masters.

Only no one came.1310 came and went, and then fifteen minutes, and the three of us called out our first squad leaders and ran to meet in front of my platoon. What had happened? What was wrong? We concluded that we had been supposed to form up at "the classroom" - in our experience the battalion theatre down at the end of the street - and had missed some vital instruction. Confident now in our understanding of the situation, we returned to our platoons.

"Platoon, atten-shun. Right face. Forward...march!" and off the street we went, three little blocks of wanna-be GIs. Column right onto the battalion street (get out there, road guards!), column right and column left into the theatre parking lot. Countercolumn. Halt. File from the right, column left...march and into the dim seats.

And then...nothing.

I think it must have been another fifteen minutes when the side door slammed open and one of the holdovers who was acting as a sort of dogsbody and general nuisance around the company stuck his head in and yelped.

"Don't move!"

We looked at each other. Hunh? Don't move...where?

Well, we found out about a nanosecond later; the cadre poured in like OD Goths swarming through the Porta Appia. We were driven outside, marched back to the company area and herded into the company classroom (in the basement of our barrack) which was the intended location of whatever silly thing we had been intended to do. The three of us platoon guides were questioned mercilessly until our drill sergeants were satisfied that we had just made an honest mistake and had not been attempting to escape.

And I think they were a little frightened by our initiative as well as chagrined at losing 120 GIs for half an hour.

I don't remember much else, other than little oddiments. Somehow we managed to get through the POI and move on without killing ourselves or each other, and I suspect that most of us made fairly decent soldiers in one way or another.The old BT post is all but closed now, and my old barracks has been made into some sort of low-security prison. The soldiers are pretty much all gone, and the units, as well. The quiet streets of the old post are mostly empty, and the cold winter winds no longer carry the sound of marching cadences sung far away.

Gas! Gas! Gas!

My particular contempt for the pack of gussied-up ninnies, professional grifters, idle rich, and crony-capitalist-whores who are in the running for this year's GOP presidential nomination will come as no surprise to you who are familiar with this blog.

But I should note that my contempt is to some degree bipartisan. While the Republican streetwalkers are more than willing to perform whatever degrading tricks their corporate masters demand of them, their whoring is more shameless only by degree, and by the extent to which they attempt to turn the rest of their fellow Americans out compared to their Blue counterparts. The U.S. political system is awash with cash, stuffed to the eyes with jack, bloated and poisoned with lucre, and the Democrats have proved more than willing to ride on the gravy train with their less circumspect GOP counterparts.

But one particular nasty trick belongs to the Republicans and the Republicans alone; the bizarre insistence that "government is the problem", which helps insure public contempt for all governance, good and bad, as well as helping facilitate bad government (which is, in fact, a problem).

Because leaving aside whether government is or isn't a problem, absent the government - municipal, state, federal - what's left?

No, Mister Paul, it's not some sort of free-market individualist libertarian paradise; this is 21st Century North America, not fucking Fantasy Island.

No, what's left is private organizations.

And the wealthiest, best organized, and consequently most powerful organizations are commercial enterprises; businesses, corporations, call them what you will. From the local grocery chain to the regional branch of Multinational, Inc., these are the last tall men standing when the government goes bye-bye.

My problem with the GOP is that their message is simply; trust them. Love them. They are GOOD.

But...why would any sane person do that?

Corporations are just people in groups. Republicans are notorious for not trusting people in groups unless they all wear the same clothes (and we'll get to that in a moment). People in groups are, as my father the Master Chief was fond of saying, as smart as the IQ of the smartest guy in the group divided by the number of people in it and as honest as the least honest guy with the skills to dip your wallet.

Here's a good example. Pacific Gas and Electric
"...(cut) back on pipeline-replacement projects and maintenance, laying off workers, using cheaper but less effective inspection techniques and trimming other pipeline costs, saved upward of 6 percent of the money designated for pipeline safety, maintenance and operations programs...(and) spent $56 million annually on an incentive plan for executives and "non-employee directors."
And in 2010 a massive pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA, killed eight people and destroyed over three dozen homes.

Now here's the thing; I don't blame PG&E.

That's right. They were just doing what a private company is supposed to do; making a profit. They shaved the edges of safety, hoping to squeeze a little extra profit here and there, and they guessed wrong, and the poor suckers in San Bruno paid for it.

But the "market" isn't designed to reward safety. Or anything but pure profit.

Which is why the human race has always found, whenever it has tried pure, raw, unrestricted, unregulated profit, that the goons, thugs, grifters, and thieves always come out of the walls. Because forming a cartel and fixing prices is always easier and more profitable than working hard to provide good service at low cost. Because stealing is always quicker and richer than trying to figure the market and the customer and the materials and work out the right price for the goods.

The GOP is right in this; when it comes to making and selling stuff, government often IS a problem. Governments just don't work quickly and subtly enough to respond to private demands - they can't; when your fuckups can cause the sort of irretrievable damage that government fuckups can, it pays to be slow and careful.

But the GOP is wrong, dead wrong, idiotically and criminally wrong in their insistence that private business is NEVER a problem. Especially today, when the business selling you things may be half a world away, far out of reach of your puny strength and invulnerable long after they have detonated your street and killed your kids.

No matter whether it's spilling petroleum into deep waters, leveling mountaintops, selling tainted meat, or blowing up your street; the private malefactors need a counterweight to keep them in fear of injuring or stealing from you.

That is the government's job, and they should be encouraged and empowered to do it. And anyone who tells you differently - Democrat or Republican - is trying to put you in the position so that someone who is paying his bills is in another position, and one that enables him to fuck you over if he so chooses.And the good people of San Bruno - those who remain - can tell you exactly what's wrong with that.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A look back from overhead

The photo below is of the neighborhood I live in taken from an Army Air Corps aircraft recording the conditions of the Willamette River channel and Swan Island in 1936.One of the things I get paid for is looking at these old photographs. I'm usually looking for evidence of past landslides, or long-lost grading. But this was pure indulgence, culled from the files of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers files during a long day of researching a nearby site.

Our little house is under the orange circle. Here's the same neighborhood today:Stop for a moment and compare the two images. That's okay, I'll wait a while.

The modern image is just what you'd expect; little brick (or in our case, wood) houses for you and me, right? That's my University Park neighborhood in a sentence, no different from any other urban Portland neighborhood. The big white-roofed building to the east? That's Astor Elementary, where the kiddos go to school. Go, Astor Eagles!

But look at the top image for a bit. Here; I'll give you a little bigger view of a portion of the southwest corner of the same photo:Our house (built only about fourteen years before the photo was flown) is still under the orange circle. We understand that the little building at the corner to the west was some sort of mom-and-pop corner store, selling Coke in bottles, and penny soap to the good working-class folks of Depression-era North Portland. And note a couple of other things; the big pale farm fields down a block to the west, with some sort of long white barn or shed along McKenna Street at the southeast corner. And notice all the little footpaths and tracks that meander through the center of the blocks; in a lot of ways this part of NoPo was still pretty rural in '36 - rural enough for folks to follow the old cowpaths rather than stay on the sidewalks.

OK, now here's an enlargement of the next Corps photo flown, from 1940:One thing I picked out here was the garage - that's inside the orange box. See it? The thing is, Portland City code requires you have a garage. No shit. Seriously. If you park your car on the street more than 48 hours you can be cited for something called "in lieu of garage" and that's a fineable offense.


So back in the day all Portland houses had garages. Ours did. But at some point prior to the 1960's the thing either burnt or rotted away and fell over. I've found bits of it under the backyard sod. But there it is in 1940, keeping the summer sun off someone's 1938 Ford Twodoor.

Here's the larger 1940 image. One thing - look at the color of the streets. See how dark they are? Now look back at 1936. See the difference?The thing is that the 1936 sidewalks look about the same color as the streets, and the streets themselves look too regular to be unpaved. See that curvy line above the farm field in both 1936 and 1940? That's N. Yale Street between McKenna and Wall, dirt then and dirt now. But the regular street grid looks paved - just not paved with asphalt. Y'know what I think happened?

I think the streets were paved in the late Teens and Twenties (when this portion of U-Park was first really developed) with concrete.That's surprisingly common for Portland; in many of the older neighborhoods in the inner East side you can still find some of those old concrete pavements exposed. But they're brittle, and usually end up covered with asphalt before too long. I think by 1940 the City had decided that they weren't going to pay for any more concrete and laid down the macadam on top.The funny thing is that when I started doing this sort of overhead window-peeping in the early Nineties there really wasn't any other way to do it; the information was either in the files at places like the Corps or proprietary to private aerial photo companies. But Google Earth and similar applications have changed all that dramatically. The image above is a larger-scale view of my home from GE, circa 1952.

Note that you can barely see Astor School, the larger H-shaped dark block east of the circle that marks our house, but the long arc of Mock's (or Waud's) Bluff, the steep cut bank of the old meander of the Willamette River that encloses Swan Island is easily seen.In the old photo you can see the "island" - the rectangular peninsula that projects up to the northwest. This had been used as Portland's airport in the earlies, and was just then beginning to be developed as the industrial area it is today - here it is in 1925, probably not long after Lindbergh visited.Note that in the aerial photo the Union Pacific line running towards the long tunnel under North Portland is still an embankment surrounded by wetlands. And here is the same view today;A little busier, isn't it?

The wetlands are gone, the swans are gone, the concrete streets are gone, the old farm fields, the cowpaths, the garages...all gone but where they remain crystallized forever in silver salts and black.


I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I check the stats for this blog.

Egotistical? Me? (Blush)

Ooooookay, well, yes.

So I was looking over the stats earlier this week and noticed this:See it?

This little blog babbles along at about 600-700 pageviews a day. I assume that the vast bulk of these are poor deluded bastards looking for gay porn - I threw a Tom of Finland picture into a blog post two years ago and that post is STILL in the top five searched posts in the history of this dog. Hopefully a few idle passersby actually take the time to read the thing and like it; maybe one or two (if I'm lucky) make it a regular stop on their peripatetic blogrounds.

But 2,300 views?

That's ridiculous - nice, but utterly unlike anything I've ever had before (or since, as you can tell. So what was so special about 4 JAN?

Well, this.

I got blogrolled!

Now I suspect that I owe a lot of my fleeting fame to pure nepotism; I've corresponded a little with Fran from BlueGal/Crooks and Liars, and when my son was little he once attempted to use her wonderful rendition of the "World's Meanest Mommy Song"
as a sort of aphrodisiac for the twenty-something he was utterly crushing on (it didn't work but it was sure worth the try, and it's a damn funny song)

But hopefully a little of that was the result of a well-written post, and my reward was a brief moment of stardom, a diurnal flirtation with the Thrones and Dominations of the Big Blog World. For one brief, bright, shining moment I shared the spotlight with Crooks and Liars, thanks to the professional courtesy of a much better blogger than I.

And then it was back to pulling an oar.

But it was nice while it lasted. Funny world, this blogging.

But, hey - thanks, Fran!

Friday Jukebox: Tears

My bride told me this story.

She and The Girl were coming home from a simple errand; a shopping trip, a visit to the library, and she was playing this on the radio as the station wagon pulled to a stop at the curb outside the house.
She sat for a moment, watching the windshield wipers push the spitting rain, until she heard a to-a-parent-familiar sound and turned to see our little girl weeping.

Like any mother would do, she turned and unfastened the Girl's seatbelt and hauled her over the partition into her lap. She hugged the small, shaking body to her, and kissed the bowed head on the sleek, shining black hair, and asked Missy if she could tell her Mom what was wrong.

Mojo says that when she had swallowed down her sniffles the Girl said;

"This song makes me think of all the bad things I did and the times I wasn't nice, and the times you didn't like me. And that makes me feel sad."

So Mojo squeezed little Missy tight and promised her that part of being mommies and daughters was that you were always loved, no matter what sort of bad thing you had done.

Because, really...what else can you say?

And the two of then sat listening to the pattering of the rain until it was time to go into the house.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Потерянный мир

This is Pinkhus Karlinskii, the supervisor of the Chernigov floodgate, who was 84 years old in 1909, which would make him 187 years old today.He lived and worked the width of Asia away from these unfortunateslocked in their zindan, a hole in the ground with a door and a adobe roof over it, described as a "traditional Central Asian prison" in the Library of Congress website devoted to the work of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, who roamed pre-Revolutionary Russia in the first decade of the Twentieth Century.And none of them were aware of these people, a family-mining operation in the Urals.

Fascinating, lovely images more than a hundred years old, of a place and a time as unrecognizable and vanished as the dark side of the Moon. And yet, the same roof in Bukhara probably still roosts the same stork, or another so like it that the picture might have been taken yesterday rather than one hundred and three years ago.Lovely, fascinating exhibit; well worth a moment to look.

(h/t to Ed at Gin and Tacos for the link...)


So we're watching this truly bad kaiju movie last night; the kiddos and I (Mojo is somewhere spending her time more productively, picking lint out of her navel or something)."Rebirth of Mothra 3" is REALLY bad. Epically bad. Even-for-kaiju-monster-movie-bad. There's been a whole lot of really confusing, bizarre plot (which we've laughed at) and really confusing, bad acting until at one point one of the excrable Japanese kid actors (EJKA) gives another EJKA a stunned look as he tries to get an explanation for just what the hell has happened (which I'm still not sure about involving time-travel and multiple kaiju monsters) by asking his pal;

"Mothra?"And as the second EJKA looks back dumbly my son turns to us and drawls what should be his line:

"Dude. It's complicated."

You know your kids are growing up when they crack you up.

I giggled my ass off, the Boy preened for the rest of the night for winning the Snarkiest Comment Award, and his little sister was totally confused.

The Boy can be a pretty an awesome kid sometimes.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Decisive Battles: Fall of Granada 1492

Capitulation of Granada Date: 2 JAN 1492Forces Engaged: Before we start, a caveat. And a treat.

First the treat; this post has a soundtrack, and here it is:
This is a song of the period, which I will talk more about in the "Touchline Tattles" section at the end of the post.

Now, for the caveat.

In this section I normally try and give you what a U.S. Army briefing would term the "order of battle" for the opposing sides. But with Granada, as usual with medieval engagements, even just the actual numbers - let alone things like troop unit strengths and commanders - are extremely difficult to determine.

The modern Western habit of methodical logistics had not yet fully developed, centralized military authority was in its infancy (although the united kingdom of Castile and Aragon was among the first in Europe to develop a "national" army as opposed to the feudal fighting tails that had characterized European war since the fall of Rome), and - particularly galling for the modern reader - the soldiers by and large didn't write, and the chroniclers weren't soldiers.So both the numbers and composition of both the Castilian and Nasrid forces are by no means definitive; for example, the brief Wikipedia article on the Siege of Granada places the Castilian numbers at 100,000; while this is not impossible, the physical dimensions of the city, the long supply lines, and the relatively primitive economy of the Iberian peninsula in 1491 make such a large number suspicious.

Add to this the difficulty locating source materials for the forces engaged (an artifact of the actual insignificance of the battle itself) and you have a perfect setup for confusion.

But I'll give it my best shot.

Nasrid Emirate of Granada (إمارة غرﻧﺎﻃﺔ‎ "Imarat Gharnāṭah"): The Granadan forces (which their Spanish enemies called generically "Moros" or Moors) of the late 15th Century would have been composed of the following elements:Cavalry: Roughly half a typical Granadan force would have been made up of some sort of mounted troop. By far the most numerous - and the most effective for the sort of raid-and-ambush engagements in the field that these soldiers would have fought were the "jinetes", unarmored light cavalry armed with a javelin-type throwing or stabbing spear, sword, and a light leather adarga shield.Typically roughly a third of a Granadan force could be made up of jinete cavalry. A relatively small number might have been armed with a light crossbow; not having been exposed to the Mongols the horsemen of western Islam did not adapt to mounted archery with any degree of enthusiasm.

The other Moorish cavalrymen of the period would have been heavy horsemen very similar to their Spanish opponents; plate-armored shock cavalry armed with heavy lance, mace, and sword. These expensive antiques were usually the property of an emir's personal retinue and, especially by 1491 would have been difficult to maintain; their heavy horses required grain that would not have been obtainable in a city under siege and the likelihood of a general engagement in the open field where the weight and impetus of a mounted attack would have proved useful was small. So although up to 1/6th of a typical Granadan army might consist of these ironheads it is very probable that the force besieged within Granada had no more than a handful - several hundred or so.Infantry and Artillery: Granadan infantry can be further divided into missile and melee infantrymen, with the former apparently being more numerous than the latter.

By the late 15th Century at least some of the professional ("jundi") Muslim footsoldiers had adopted handguns, although the Moorish infantry did not develop the extensive practice with and affection for the weapon that characterised the Castilian infantry (as we will see). Although the Moorish emirates had adopted gunpowder artillery earlier than their Christian enemies they tended to confine it to artillery and in sieges.

Most of the Muslim missile infantry at Granada would have been armed with a crossbow, or even a sling; nearly every peasant in Granada is said to have owned a crossbow. Crossbow-armed troops would also have included both jundi professional soldiers as well as mercenaries from North Africa.By the time the Granadans had been forced back on their capital it was obvious that the war was at the "win or die" stage, so melee infantry would have included practically as many able-bodied adults as could carry a weapon. These would have included spear-and-shield infantry (carrying either the adarga or a larger rectangular wicker-type shield as well as sword-and-bucklermen. Body armor seems to have been limited although sallet-type helmets were fairly common, and many of the troops that did manage a back-and-breastplate might well have obtained them from their enemies.

Perhaps a third of the Granadan force would have been some variation of missile-firing infantry, with about a sixth being hand-weapon armed melee infantry.

The best estimates I've seen for the force immured in Granada range from 20,000 to 40,000. So assuming that the above proportions are correct, the rough division of the Nasrid forces would have been something like 10-15,000 cavalry, probably 12,000 or so jinete light cavalry and the remainder heavy armored "knight"-type horsemen, another 10,000 missile-firing infantry, and some 5,000 close-combat light infantry and gunners.

So approximately 30,000 all arms under the "official" commander of the Nasrid forces would have been the ruler, Abu `Abdallah Muhammad XII (أبو عبد الله محمد الثاني عش‎ - Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad al-thānī ‘ashar, known to his enemies as "Boabdil", a corruption of his patronymic "Abu Abdullah".His day-to-day operations would have been assisted by his wazirs - senior civil/military officers - Abu l-Qasim Abd al Malik and Musa Ibn Abdul l-Gazan.

Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile - In the late 15th Century the united kingdoms that formed the center of modern Spain still had one foot in the middle ages as the other stepped into the Renaissance.

The organization of the armed forces of the Castilian crown reflected this dichotomy.

In general the composition of the Castilian force mirrored that of the Granadans, although with a somewhat larger infantry and artillery contingent. Like the Moors, the Spanish cavalry would have been divided between the more numerous light horse jinetes and a knightly armored heavy cavalry. Also like their enemies the Spanish infantry would have consisted of missile-firing infantry - although substantially more of the Spanish would have been carrying firearms - and melee infantry.But there were differences, and the differences were significant.

Perhaps the most significant was the Spanish adoption of hand-cannon.

In his review of Prescott (1995), McJoynt (1997) summarizes these early musketeers:
"The Spanish espingarda, was equivalent to the French arquebus and Italian escopeta at the end of the fifteenth century. It was distinctive for its ‘matchlock' device which allowed the gunner to concentrate on aiming as he moved a lever which mechanically aligned the lighted match to the touchhole in the bore of the gun. The War for Granada was definitely the launching-pad for the Spanish army's preference for firearms. The Catholic Sovereigns armed a large portion of their new levies of untrained infantrymen with espingardas. Ferdinand established quotas for towns to furnish armed espingarderos for the Santa Hermandad and militia forces.
As the war progressed, Castilian infantrymen acquired a familiarity and a confidence in the use of firearms. The incentive was there to make the best of the weapon. There were obvious improvements that could be made. The Italians may have led in advancing the design improvements and craftsmanship of firearms, and the Germans and the Flemish were possibly the leading manufacturers of guns in this era. However, in the Italian Wars, which were soon to follow the conquest of Granada, it was the Spanish who demonstrated dominant proficiency in their employment."
So while the actual effect of the Spanish musketeers on the siege of Granada was minimal, the siege and the campaign of which it forms the final portion were instrumental in producing the Spanish tercios that were to conquer the Western Hemisphere and dominate the battlefields of Europe for the following century.

The other component of those famed formations were the rodeleros, the sword-and-bucklermen. The broken terrain of Granada helped the Spanish infantry develop these hard-hitting mobile infantrymen. Again, although not instrumental in the fall of Granada itself, the campaign was crucial in the evolution of the Spanish troops from the untrained, unorganized mobs that were medieval footsoldiery to the highly professional formations that led Spain to its position in Europe and the world over the next 200 years.

The flexible combination of active light infantry armed with close-quarter melee weapons and musketeers would break the Renaissance pike squares and set the stage for the Queen's Move of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century warfare, the ordered ranks of musket-and-bayonet infantry.

The other thing to know about the Spanish Army was the source of its numbers, which are likewise a transition between the medieval and the modern.

The Castilian monarchy was among the earliest to transition from feudal levies to paid professional soldiers through an early systematic change in tax and other revenue collection. Rather than requiring service-in-kind from its vassals the Castilian throne levied money taxes which, in turn, were used to pay professionals, including (for the Granada compaign) Spanish light cavalry, English Archers and axemen, Swiss Infantry, Burgundian matchlock infantry and cannoneers. These monies also paid for the the march wardens (adelantados), frontier alcaldes, and the garrisons of castles that represented the royal presence on the frontier.

But a significant number of the Spanish forces still derived from the traditional fighting tails of the border lords, the "fronteros", the great Andalusian nobles such as the Guzmán dukes of Medina Sidonia, the Ponce de León marquises of Cadiz, and the counts of Cabra and Arcos. Like their English and Scottish counterparts these men held their lands with medieval-style private armies of vassals and dependents.

A peculiarly Spanish institution was the Hermandad, "Brotherhood", a municipal organization that provided police authority in times of peace and militia troops in wartime. Ferdinand and Isabella established a "Holy Brotherhood" - Santa Hermandad - early in their joint reign and relied on these levies for significant numbers. Most of the Brotherhood would have been infantrymen of one form or another; Nicolle (1998) says the ratio of infantry to mounted troops was about 5:1. Gush (1975) says that in 1490 the Hermandad foot of Andalusia had 7% firearms, 33.5% crossbowmen, 42% spearmen or pikemen, and the rest pioneers and craftsmen.

The remaining significant contingent of the Spanish army was even more medieval; the religious orders.

These outgrowths of the great Crusading monastic orders such as the Templars and Hospitalers included the Order of Calatrava in Navarre, the Order of Santiago in Extramadura, and the Order of Alcántara in Leon.

While these religious orders of knighthood began as heavy cavalry in the same way and at the same time as their better known bretheren, by the 15th Century they had developed a professional organization similar to those of the royal troops; a hard core of heavy cavalry (the brothers themselves) surrounded and supported by jinetes and both missile-firing and melee infantry.My guess is that it would have taken several times the number of defenders to successfully invest the Moorish capital. So the Castilian forces probably numbered at least 60,000 and might have been as strong as 100,000 if all the peripheral and support troops are included but probably not for extended periods. The average of the Spanish force over the eight-month siege was probably something closer to 70-80,000; 40-50,000 infantrymen and artillerymen and 20-30,000 cavalry under the combined command of the "Catholic Monarchs", los Reyes Católicos, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon of the House of Trastámara. Their principal counselors and commanders included Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, later famous for his service in the Italian Wars as El Gran Capitán.

The Sources: Both sides in the Granadan conflict were literate, although the idea of "military history" as we now consider it was in its infancy. Primary sources for both sides include fiscal records for the ruling houses and contemporary reports and personal letters; many of these still reside in the Spanish archives in the Escurial. Secondary historical accounts are numerous for both sides, as well. Among the earliest of these include the works of Luis del Marmol Carvajal and Abu-l-'Abbas Ahmad ibn Mohammed al-Maqqari. Carvajal, in particular, was fluent in Arabic and was contemporary with the survivors of the fall of Granada. Al-Maqqari's "The Breath of Perfume from the Branch of Green Andalusia and Memorials of its Vizier Lisan ud-Din ibn ul-Khattib" (لقسم الاول [- الثانى] من كتاب نفح الطيب من غصن الاندلس الرطيب و ذكر رها لسان الدين بن الخطيب, Nafh at-teeb...) compiles significant authors from Islamic Spain, Al-Andalus, and gives valuable background for the period.

English secondary sources are dominated by William H. Prescott's "History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic", a monumental three volume set published in 1837. It has gone through fifteen unabridged editions and several abridgements since the end of the 19th Century. McJoynt (1997) notes that "The fifteenth edition published by J.B. Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1892, appears to be the last one with the author's final revisions and all his notes." McJoynt (1997) also notes that the other "popular" English history of the period, Washington Irving's 1892 "Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada" while more popular (or as popular as a book on this subject could be in the 21st Century...) is less well researched and contains a less penetrating analysis of the sources.

Spanish language military sources for the period abound, and include Miguel Ladero Quesada's 1967 work "Castilla y la conquista Reino de Granada" and Jorge Vigón Suero-Díaz 1968 "El Ejército de los Reyes Católicos" along with a feast of general histories of the period such as Mata Carriazo's massive 1969 "La España de los Reyes Católicos"

For the casual reader with a particular interest in the military aspects of the campaign the Osprey 1998 volume "GRANADA 1492, The Twilight of Moorish Spain [The Fall of GRANADA 1481-1492]" by David Nicolle is invaluable.

For those interested in the Granada experience as a setting for overripe Victorian romance the infamous Bulwer-Lytton wrote something called "Leila, or the Siege of Granada", described by a well-disposed reviewer as a "medieval pot-boiler", in 1838.It's available on-line from Project Gutenberg and appears to be, well, um, a bit Bulwer-Lyttonesque.

Here's a trifle for your reading pleasure:
"Her form was of the lightest shape consistent with the roundness of womanly beauty; and there was something in it of that elastic and fawnlike grace which a sculptor seeks to embody in his dreams of a being more aerial than those of earth. Her luxuriant hair was dark indeed, but a purple and glossy hue redeemed it from that heaviness of shade too common in the tresses of the Asiatics; and her complexion, naturally pale but clear and lustrous, would have been deemed fair even in the north. Her features, slightly aquiline, were formed in the rarest mould of symmetry, and her full rich lips disclosed teeth that might have shamed the pearl. But the chief charm of that exquisite countenance was in an expression of softness and purity, and intellectual sentiment, that seldom accompanies that cast of loveliness, and was wholly foreign to the voluptuous and dreamy languor of Moorish maidens; Leila had been educated, and the statue had received a soul."
Leaves you wanting more, eh?

The Campaign: Technically the Campaign of Granada began on the night of 28 FEB 1482 when a force led by the Marques de Cadiz seized the fortress city of Alhama, twenty miles north of Granada in the center of the emirate, by coup de main. But to really understand what happened you have to go back much earlier, to the year 711 AD.Because to really understand the Reconquista you have to put yourselves in the minds of the people of 15th Century Spain. And for them, this was just another battle in a war that had been going on for over seven hundred years, since the Umayyad conquest of what was then Visigothic Spain.

Before we go on, let's take a moment to stand and be amazed at the incredible, terrible Umayyad conquest, right up there with the Mongols and the European colonial era as one of the truly world-changing events of history.Because for the Europeans, the arrival of the Muslims must have seemed like something out of their worst nightmare. Not only was it so decisive, it was so freaking QUICK. It seemed like just yesterday the Christian inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula had been basking in the sun with the only worry what to have for desayuno or where to find a Jew or three to torture for gold when suddenly there was a goddamn Berber with a tulwar at their throat demanding the keys to the pantry and the location of the four nearest Christian virgins.

Well, sod THAT for a game of soldiers.

And the thing is, on the historical scale, the Islamic expansion WAS quick; it was a blink of an eye on the human timeline.Between Badr in 624 and the middle of the Seventh Century Islam sort of crawled out of Mecca into the bulk of the Arabian peninsula. But then, as now, there wasn't shit in the Arabian peninsula except sand and petroleum and the locals didn't know about the petroleum. And add to that the ugly infighting between the Umayyads and the Hashimites after Badr - the Umayyads were the three mooks killed in the single combats at the beginning of the dustup, remember? No? OK, follow the link and go read about it. I can wait.

OK, now, are we good? Anyway, after a bunch of fairly nasty stuff involving war and murder and people trying to eat other people's livers (and her name was Hind and no, I'm not kidding; at least that's what Ibn Isḥaq's hadith says...) and the First Fitna (civil war, no less) the Umayyads ended up on top, with a power base in Damascus, in about 660 AD.

But by this time the troops under the green flags with the arabic holy writ tucked inside their shirts had spread the rule of the caliphs from the Libyan desert in the west to the plains of Anatolia in the north to the fringe of the Himalayan plateau in the east. The entire eastern Levant had fallen to this new religion, and this was just the beginnings.Over the next forty years the Islamic wavefront swept across North Africa and into the Iberian peninsula.


As always with this period we're crippled by sources; we have only one near-contemporary source, the so-called "Chronicle of 754" written at that date in occupied Spain. We don't really have even that but manuscript copies, the earliest dated from the Ninth Century. At least the Latin one is within living memory of the events. The earliest Arabic account of the conquest, Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam "History of the Conquest of the lands of Egypt and North Africa and Spain" could not have been written earlier than about 850 AD.

Neither source is really explicit on what happened. Supposedly a Berber from North Africa, Tariq Ibn Ziyad, took about 10-15,000 troops, mostly also native Berbers and recent converts to Islam, across the strait to Gibraltar. Why, we don't really know.He may have been ordered by the Umayyad caliph Al-Walid the First to invade the Iberian peninsula. He may have been ordered to make a combined raid/recon to poke the Visigoths and see what sort of stuff they were made of. He may have been an opportunist with a nose for plunder. Or he may have even been invited in, by one side or another in a Visigoth civil war.

No matter. Once there, the wild riders from North Africa went through the Visigoths like a dose of salts. Tariq and his successors kept on going north and didn't really stop for ten years, until they ran into some harder guys who harshed their conquest buzz, first the Andalusians as Toulouse in 721, then them and the Merovingians at Tours in 732.

But the result was an Islamic state across the bulk of Iberia for several hundred years. The invaders only made one real mistake.They couldn't close the deal.

Several Christian states remained untaken in the north; Castile, Leon, Aragon and Navarre, and the Basque principalities of Barcelona and Urgel. These would prevent Spain from following the example of Anatolia and replacing a Christian polity with an Islamic one that remains to this day in Iberia as Turkey remains Muslim in Asia Minor.

The fight for Iberia is insanely complicated and far too immense to fully include here. Moor fought Christian, Christian fought Christian, Moor fought Moor, and sometimes the all ended up in a big sweaty pile fighting everyone including themselves.

What made things tough for the "re-conquerors" is that just as Western crusading was getting popular the notion of getting in on a piece of this Spanish action was getting popular with the Maghreb peoples of North Africa. So as the Western Christian armies begin to turn up in Spain to take a slap at the wogs, new tough guys from the desert, Berber hardmen with a yen to kick some Jesus-pestering ass, show up in Spain - in succession first the Murâbits, then the Muwahhids, and finally the Marinids.

But the bottom line is that over the next four centuries - really over about the next two - the Christian Spanish pushed the Muslim Spanish and their North African Berber pals south back towards the Spanish Muslim version of Plymouth Rock.Through truces, strategems, double-dealing, open warfare, raid and counter-raid the two factions faced off in central Spain from about 1090 to about 1212, when an immense Crusader army beat the pants off the Muwahhid forces commanded personally by caliph Muhammad an-Nâsir.This defeat, Las Navas de Tolosa, broke Muwahhid power conclusively and helped ignite a vicious series of intra-Muslim coups and civil wars, so that by 1252 all that remained of the emirate of Al-Andalus were the small southern state of Granada and the tiny statelet of Niebla.

And this is where things then stood for the next 230 years.There's good reasons for this. Intra-Iberian quarreling, the scourge of ancient (and modern) Spain, and the simplicity and inflexibility of late medieval military art. The tough support lent by the Maranid Berber emirs of North Africa, as well as the Ottomans, and some clever diplomacy from the Granadans. And the little state was not inconsiderable in its own right. Bishko (1975) says of this principality:
"Solidly ensconced in the Sierra Nevada and outlying ranges of the Baetic Cordillera, the Nasrid commonwealth was a formidable military nut to crack. Its interior could be reached only through a limited number of passes and twisting mountain roads, readily commanded by castles or walled towns and ideal for ambuscades. The few good harbors along its rockbound coast -- Malaga, Vélez-Málaga, Almeria -- gave no easy access to the interior.
The relatively dense population, in part descended from refugees of previous fallbacks, possessed naturally warlike inclinations, hatred of the ancestral Christian enemy, a fierce love of independence, and a deep awareness that they were defending the last free Islamic homeland in the peninsula. Granada's rulers (were) usually capable or served by sagacious counselors...(and) their armies generally managed to hold the long border against Castile and reduce Christian penetrations from the level of projected conquest to merely destructive raids. Late medieval Castile long lacked the prerequisites for the conquest of this highly compartmentalized mountain massif which, as the ultimately successful ten-year Granadan war of Ferdinand and Isabella showed, demanded strong leadership and national persistence in the multiple campaigns and sieges of a costly war of attrition."
For the next two centuries the Granadan marches saw something of what occurred between England and Scotland between the 11th and 18th Centuries; "peace" punctured by interminable raids, thievery, murder, rapine, and petty larceny punctuated by occasional massive outbreaks of death when one of the rulers got shirty and decided to have a go at the other. This made for some very good stories, probably a great deal of actual misery for the humbler sorts of people concerned, and served mostly just to keep the pot simmering nicely for a hearty serving of war soup whenever things got boring around the castle.So we come to the last quarter of the 15th Century with things pretty much as they were 225 years earlier. Mind you, I've skipped huge chunks of the story that matter to historians and mattered to the people living though them alike, such as the bubonic plague epidemic of 1345-1360; the "Black Death". It hit Iberia and the North African Maghreb hard as the rest of Europe and west Asia. Entire villages simply stopped. Armies were destroyed, cities depopulated.

And then everyone went back to fighting.

The real first key event in the last campaign for Granada occurs in 1469, when Isabella, teenage heir to the throne of Castile, marries Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragon. He is a year younger. Unusually for his time, Ferdinand appears to be wary of coming the boss-man on his wife. They share her kingdom when she inherits several years later and then his in 1481. They are a tough, competent couple with a head for warfare.Unfortunately, as we will see, they also had a stomach for religious terrorism; in 1478 that petitioned, and were granted by the pope, to set up a special religious secret police force, the Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición - The Spanish Inquisition.
You knew that was coming, right?


With a new regime organizing the joint kingdoms most of the elements were in place for the final reduction of the Moorish state of Granada, and in the winter of 1482 the entire business began.

The Engagement: The accession of the Catholic Monarchs was pure bad news for Granada; the Moorish state had in large part survived for the preceding century because all the Christ-pesterers were too busy beating on each other to beat on them.

Now the largest Christian polity was not only internally at peace but was ruled by a pair of young, aggressive kids who wanted nothing more than a good crusade to pull their kingdom together. The Granadans already knew that their geopolitical position wasn't real sunny; way back in 1400, the Muslim chroniclar Ibn Hudayl wrote "Is Granada not enclosed between a violent sea and an enemy terrible in arms, both of which press on its people day and night?"

To make matters worse, Granada in the late 15th Century was going through one of its periodic periods of civil war.The stormy petrel of Granada during this time was our boy Boabdil. Trying to explain Nasrid internal politics is like teaching German irregular verbs to a cat, but suffice to say that this character was one of those stupid-but-energetic types that Clausewitz recommended be shot out of hand because of their potential to do damage to an army or a state, and so he did. He came to power in one of those gawdawful harem-politics things that would prove to be so crippling to the later Ottoman Empire; his mom, Fatima, had a huge hate on for one of her husband's subsequent wives (a captive Spaniard, Dona Isabel de Solis, who had taken the Muslim name Zoraya) and orchestrated a coup against her hubby in Boabdil's favor in 1482.(The above portrait is supposed to be young Boabby, by the way, made during his youth)

That same year Castilian borderers raided into Granada; same-old, same-old - there was supposed to be a truce in effect (signed back in 1478 when F&I were still trying to settle their rival's hash back up north) but who cared? That's what the border was for. But in this case the Granadan nobility reacted by taking a whack at Zahara on the northwest fringes of their border in December, 1481. Perhaps to their own surprise the town fell and produced a juicy pile of Christian slaves.This, in turn, really hacked off the Andalusian notables, gave the Marques de Cadiz a plausible reason for revenge, and it was game on; two months later the Muslim inhabitants of Alhama were being herded north to the rest of their own miserable lives.

The following decade saw a nasty repetition of warring summers and winter cease-fires. The Christian troops, now better organized, centrally commanded, and better supplied, torched Granadan farms and ranches, destroying the economic base for the Nasrid soldiery.By the late 1480's the Castilians had worked up to capturing whole cities; Ronda and the Granadan fleet base of Marbella in 1485, Baeza, Málaga and Almeria in 1487, Almunecar and Salobrena in 1489. The Castilians' secret weapon was the bombard - both numbers of and skill with these weapons made the successful sieges possible, and because of both technical and fiscal shortcomings the Granadans could not hope to reply.

One of the other critical factors was the Spanish command of the sea. The Maghreb wasn't a particularly nautical sort of place, the Granadans had never been much in the way of salty, and the only real Muslim seagoing power, the Ottoman Empire, was largely based all the way across the Mediterranean or at least no closer than the Italian peninsula. Aragonese and Portuguese fighting sailors did much to close the seas to Granadan traffic, and contributed mightily to the economic ruin of the Nasrid emirate.

Meanwhile our Boabdil was busy screwing up. First he got himself caught by the Castilians in 1483 and was held for three years. He was finally let go under two conditions; he would accept official vassalage to the Catholic Monarchs and give up his son as a hostage. As soon as he got back he turfed out his uncle, Abū `Abd Allāh Muhammad az-Zaghal (daddy Abu l-Hasan Ali had died, of sheer irritation with his family being my guess, in 1485, after having been couped again, this time by his brother) and proceeded to continue blundering on; he was unable to either figure out some way to placate the Spaniards or defeat them, and his relations with his senior nobles was so poor that he is said to have controlled little more than the Alhambra Palace itself.In 1489 the Castilians who, up to that point, had largely been attacking the western portions of Granada under our man the Marques of Cadiz launched an offensive into northeastern Granada taking the fortress town of Baza and capturing Az-zagal who had showed himself the most competent of the Granadan commanders. By 1490 it must have looked like the rest would be just a parade. Certainly the Catholic Monarchs seem to have thought that.

But here again our lad Boabdil intervened.

He wasn't happy about his "alliance" (mostly because I suspect the Spanish didn't trust him, either - they were acting as the actual ruler in the parts of Granada he'd been promised) So - despite the fact that all he controlled was the city of Granada itself and the nearby but economically worthless Alpujarras Mountains - he raised the red flag of rebellion and dared the Castilians to

He tried diplomacy, warning his fellow Muslims that the ferenghis were dead on his ass and without a little help the last bit of Islam in Iberia was going down.

It worked about as well as Boabdil's other cunning plans.

The Mumluk Sultan of Egypt, An-Nasir Muhammad, sent his regards, wagged a finger at Ferdinand for being a naughty, naughty ferenghi, but reminded Boabdil that 1) he was sorta fighting the Ottomans and 2) so were Castile and Aragon. So they were kinda his BFFs at the moment, sorry.

The Emir of Fez - what is modern Morocco - didn't even bother to reply; the Moroccan ports continued to sell grain to Castile and generally kept up good trade relations with the Christians.

The Ottomans would have been happy to take a slap at the Spaniards, but they were too far away, cut off by land, and the Granadans no longer controlled any coastline, so naval support, if available, would have been operating at the end of a very long logistical chain on a hostile shore with no good harbors within reach.

They were on their own.

The siege lines closed some time in early April, 1481. The Castilians had no motivation to assault the city, while the Nasrids were too badly outnumbered to get any value from a sortie.

There was only one significant incident of actual fighting during the siege, that during June of 1481.

The siege had continued in desultory fashion into midsummer, when supposedly Isabella, wanting a "closer look" at the prize, entered the town of Zubia (or La Zubia) with her retinue. This little town is roughly 5 klicks south of the then-center of Granada and the military fortresses (the Alcazaba/Alhambra complex) that perch above the city proper.

Supposedly the queen's escort - heavy horse led by our man the Marques of Cadiz again - deployed out on the plain north of La Zubia. Someone in the garrison command saw this either as an opportunity or the damn ferenghis cocking a snook and sent a sortie out to take a slap at them. After some sort of goofy single combat that serves primarily to remind us that these folks weren't all that far removed from the feudal ironheads they had been a couple of generations before the fighting became general. The Nasrid jinetes and their supporting heavy cavalry lost heavily and were driven in (or retreated) after losing a reported 2,000 or so killed or too badly wounded to get off the field under their own power.Wait.

I should really tell the story of the "single combat" because it so perfectly sums up the weird medieval character of the thing.

Okay, so the whole business actually begins when this character Hernando de Pulgar supposedly sneaks into Granado to paste up an "Ave Maria" on the door of the mosque; how he does this with an entire garrison on the qui vive or what a written copy of a Latin prayer (which probably no more than a handful of the defenders could read) does I have no freaking idea.

But that's the story.

So as the Nasrid horsemen come tumbling out the south gate one of them who goes into history with the ridiculous name of "Yarfe" had...well, I can't really do this story justice. Let me quote it as found here:
"A Moorish officer named Yarfe challenged Garcilasso de la Vega, who represented his superior officer Hernando de Pulgar, who had sneaked into Granada to fasten a copy of the Ave Maria on the mosque door. Yarfe dragged that document in the dust behind his horse, thus the challenge. Pulgar was not on hand, so de la Vega stood in for him. The two combatants met in the open between the two forces. De la Vega was victorious, but that provoked a Muslim attack."
Sounds ridiculous, but, remember, we've had 500 years of this sort of knightly foolishness.Maybe it was possible. I have no idea.

At any rate, that night supposedly the royal tent caught fire and much of the Castilian encampment burned over. This precipitated the renewal of the engagement of the day before, as the Castilians deployed to show that they were still in fighting trim and the Nasrids sortied. The entire business degenerated into more single combats without result. The Catholic Monarchs moved their camp to the west side of Granada where they built a permanent siege headquarters that exists today as the town of Santa Fe - "Holy Faith".

After that it was all artillery and starvation.

By November the defenders were negotiating in earnest. The Nasrid party managed to hammer out a pretty decent agreement - the sort of terms that earlier Granadan cities had won while the issue was still in doubt. The deal was, loosely; no individual vengeance or prosecution, freedom of worship, locally elected magistrates, and protection of Islamic culture. If you didn't want to be ruled by a ferenghi, you got all expenses paid to North Africa.

The deal was actually done on 25 NOV 1491 with a 2-month waiting period (yeah, I know, but that's what the published story says. The Wiki entry claims that "The reason for the long delay was not so much intransigence on either side, but rather the inability of the Granadan government to coordinate amongst itself in the midst of the disorder and tumult that gripped the city.") but the Islamic hardcores stated getting stroppy and our man Boabdil pushed the key exchange up to 2 JAN 1482.Here's a contemporary description of the scene on the final day of Muslim rule in Spain:
"With the royal banners and the cross of Christ plainly visible on the red walls of the Alhambra...the Moorish sultan with about eighty or a hundred on horseback very well dressed went forth to kiss the hand of their Highnesses. According to the final capitulation agreement both Isabel and Ferdinand will decline the offer and the key to Granada will pass into Spanish hands without Muhammad XII having to kiss the hands of Los Royes, as the Spanish royal couple became known. The indomitable mother of Muhammad XII insisted on sparing his son this final humiliation. (T)here was no one who did not weep abundantly with pleasure giving thanks to Our Lord for what they saw, for they could not keep back the tears; and the Moorish sultan and the Moors who were with him for their part could not disguise the sadness and pain they felt for the joy of the Christians, and certainly with much reason on account of their loss, for Granada is the most distinguished and chief thing in the world..."
Needless to say, the "indomitable mother" Fatima was pissed. The story goes that Boabdil and his cronies paused as they left the city to look back (the place is now called "Puerto del Suspiro del Moro" or the Pass of the Moor's Last Sigh) where he could get all weepy over his lost inheritance, at which Fatima, hard woman to the last, pulled up beside him and growled "Ibki l-yawma bukā'a n-nisā'i ʿalā mulkin lam taḥfuẓhu ḥifẓa r-rijāl." which translates as something like "You cry like a little bitch over what you couldn't defend like a real man."And that was that.The Outcome: Total strategic Spanish victory with broad geopolitical implications.The Impact: Well, the immediate impact was political; the fall of the last bit of Muslim Spain was a great lift for all of Christendom and a cause of despair in Islam. Celebrations were decreed all over Spain as well as by the Papacy. Good times for the Jesus Loves Me crowd. Popular romance, poetry, and song imagined the Catholic Monarchs rolling Islam all the way back past Jerusalem.Of course, this never happened; for one thing, the genuine military power in Islam at the time was still centuries from its peak. Thirty years later Suleiman the Magnificent was hammering on the gates of Vienna, and the Ottomans were still a power in Europe 100 years after that. In one of history's odd quirks, the Mediterranean littoral at Granada marked the effective end of the Spanish rollback of Islam.The Castilian kingdoms never seriously threatened the North African Mahgreb; the only successful assault on Islam over the 400 years between the fall of Granada and the Big Years of European colonialism in the 19th Century was the capture of the embarassingly tiny port city of Melilla, today an autonomous city but once part of the Spanish province of Málaga.This tiny city-state and the former Portuguese North African holding of Ceuta are today the front line in the dirty secret war against the migration into the EU.But regardless of the future, at the time the fall of Granada was huge for Spain. For one thing it removed a potential "Scotland" that might have given the Castilian crown trouble in the oncoming Italian Wars, much as its northern counterpart could be relied on to fuck with England whenever possible.

The effect of the Andalusian wars had been to produce a unified, warlike, militantly Christian Spain that was - with the domestic enemy disposed of - raging to get at new enemies. The success of the Granada War was to spin off the Italian Wars in Europe as well as the incredible Spanish colonial adventures in the Western Hemisphere, all made possible by the bureaucratic cohesion and military skills forged in the fight against the Nasrids.As the Spaniards waxed, the Mahgreb waned.

The North African littoral was battered by Portuguese and Spanish raiders over the next century, and many of the Moroccan ports in the Atlantic coast were seized by Lisbon. Isolated from the Islamic centers of power in Cairo and Istanbul, the western stretches of the Islamic crescent atrophied into small quarreling emirates and tribes; the devil of political fragmentation and legitimacy that was in the details of the collapse of Granada also weakened the western salient of Islam.

After their defeat at the gates of Vienna in 1529 the Ottomans, too, were forced back from the European heartland.

The stage was set for the age of the ferocious European colonial empires that would grind the once-proud Islamic powers under the ammunition boots of their riflemen.

Lessons Learned: So.

What, if any, enduring military ideas can we take away from the final defeat of Islamic Spain, from the final campaign of the Reconquista?To my mind they would be these:

Without political competence military skills are next to worthless The Nasrid troops were well equipped (other then in artillery), tactically well led, and well motivated. The inability of their political leaders to stop the destructive cycle of intrigue, coup, and counter-coup made their abilities nearly useless. Granada was defeated well before the castle of Alhama fell; as Spain became modern and unified Granada remained feudal and divided. As Sun Tzu said; the most effective battle is the one that is won before it is fought.That said, however, we hairless monkeys seem to have a hard time understanding that;

The skills needed to obtain and maintain a stable peace are an order of magnitude more difficult than those needed to win a war And yet we often revere and renown our warriors for the latter far above those politicians capable of the former. Both Boabdil's father and uncle were fine commanders and are considered "good" emirs; but they were unable to maintain any sort of peace or arrange foreign alliances capable of sustaining them in war. Boabdil was, without question, an utter tool, a 15th Century sort of Dubya; a sword without a brain, a fist without a plan. But the Nasrids before him helped push him over that pass of sighs. He was no more than the product of his time and place, and that time and place were not designed for survival. Not against the enemies they faced.And, last,

If you're ruthless enough and strong enough there's no downside to ruthlessness No surprise, eh? Given what we know of people.

It was the crusading spirit that animated the Catholic Monarchs and helped unite their subjects. This zeal won them a kingdom but destroyed the toleration that had created the culture of Spain from the fusion of Christian, Jew, and Muslim. Within a decade after the capitulation of Granada the Spanish rulers reneged on their promises and their servants of the Inquisition were torturing and butchering people for being Muslim (or Jew), and driving the rest out.

And the thing to remember here is - it worked. Religion WAS politics in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation times; conversos and morescos presented a perfect Fifth Column opportunity for the Ottomans and then later the Protestant enemies of Spain.

The Inquisition stopped this completely.

Although there were individual Spanish traitors there was never an organized anti-Spanish conspiracy in Spain as the Catholic underground provided for the Stuarts in England. Conventional wisdom is that this produced a sort of exodus of talent that worked against Spain in both the short and long term. But look at Spain and its North African neighbors today. Spain is a tidy little European democracy where its citizens enjoy relatively stable and prosperous First World lives.

Few, if any, of the countries of the Mahgreb can be called as stable as "Third World", and many of them are outright Hobbesean. While the long horror of the Holy Office was terrible for the Spaniards of its day I fail to see how its supposed waste of Spain's human currency has benefited Spain's neighbors in any significant way over the long view of history.Touchline Tattles: Other than Mommy Fatima Dearest's crushing comment on young Boabdil's girly-manhood there's not much lighthearted or entertaining about the story of the Fall of Granada, especially when you know that down the road are the auto-de-fe and the religious persecution that made Spain a byword for intolerant horrors.

Instead, let me leave you with a little song-and-dance of the victors, from a popular song of the day entitled Paseabase el Rey Moro; "The Moorish King Rides Ambling Along""Paseábase el rey moro
por la ciudad de Granada
desde la puerta de Elvira
hasta la de Vivarrambla
¡Ay de mi Alhama!"

The Moorish King rides ambling along
through Granada's royal town
from Elvira's gate to those
of Vivarambla on he goes.
Alas, my Alhama!

Letters to the monarch tell
How Alhama's city fell:
In the fire the scroll he threw,
And the messenger he slew.
Alas, my Alhama!


Out then spake an aged Moor
In these words the king before,
'Wherefore call on us, oh King?
What may mean this gathering?'
Alas, my Alhama!

'Friends! ye have, alas! to know
Of a most disastrous blow;
That the Christians, stern and bold,
Have obtain'd Alhama's hold.'
Alas, my Alhama!

Out then spake old Alfaqui,
With his beard so white to see,
'Good King! thou art justly served,
Good King! this thou hast deserved.
Alas, my Alhama!

'By thee were slain, in evil hour,
The Abencerrage, Granada's flower;
And strangers were received by thee
Of Cordova the Chivalry.
Alas, my Alhama!


And men and infants therein weep
Their loss, so heavy and so deep;
Granada's ladies, all she rears
Within her walls, burst into tears.
Alas, my Alhama!And from the windows o'er the walls
The sable web of mourning falls;
The King weeps as a woman o'er
His loss, for it is much and sore.
Alas, my Alhama!