Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Maundering in the Dead Time

I think I've mentioned this before.

(In fact, I know I did; it was this time last year...)

The week between Christmas and the New Year always seems to me to be a very odd sort of aimless, drifting period; I called it "the Dead Time" in last year's post. Maybe that comes from my Army days, when at this time of year we went to a half-day schedule, loafing off waiting for the holidays to pass and the new working year to begin.

Or perhaps it's just that this is a kind of rudderless time, when many of us just take our foot off the throttle and lay back for a week or so.

The kiddos are out of school and - if the past week has been any indication - are lazing about watching videos and playing videogames.
My Bride has the fortnight off, as well, and is overwatching the larvae to the degree required. My workplace is ludicrously silent. I have about four hours of work today - already receipted and filed - and another four this Wednesday, and then a full day of work Friday, and that's it. I have no friggin' notion of what to do tomorrow. Perhaps in the grand Soviet tradition I will pretend to work and my corporate master will pretend to pay me.

So in the spirit of the week, here are some idle ruminations.

Fallows has a worthwhile article up about the ongoing disconnect between our American pretense of "enthusiasm" for "the troops" and our actual ignorance of and indifference to said "troops". We've talked this one to death - it was the primary subject of last year's "dead time" post right here - but the situation hasn't changed. We the People are still far too well insulated from the geopolitical consequences of our political stupidity as well as the lives and deaths of those we send into the arena to be whipped with rods, burned with fire, and killed with steel.

That cannot be a good thing, for them or us.

And I should add that the one thing the Fallows article discusses is the one thing that really irks the shit out of me about the present reflexive warrior-worship:
"Americans admire the military as they do no other institution. Through the past two decades, respect for the courts, the schools, the press, Congress, organized religion, Big Business, and virtually every other institution in modern life has plummeted. The one exception is the military. Confidence in the military shot up after 9/11 and has stayed very high. In a Gallup poll last summer, three-quarters of the public expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military. About one-third had comparable confidence in the medical system, and only 7 percent in Congress."
Don't get me wrong. You don't, as I did, spend more than two decades in an armed service without loving the hell out of it. Well, not if you're a 20th and 21st Century American and have other options than those forced on you by Sergeant Winter.

But...I also know all the fucked up and stupid things that my Army and my fellow soldiers and officers did, and do. The U.S. Army is no different than any other immense organization, and there's always more than enough ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision to go around. You know that. You've worked for GigantoCorp, or dealt with MegaLocity, Inc. Throw in the immensely-fucked-up-by-its-very-nature qualities of war? You get a Perfect Storm of fucktardry.

It's inescapable.

The reality is that in war people get killed and maimed and fucked-up, or get other people killed, maimed, and fucked-up, for stupid reasons, or for no reason at all. Weapons and equipment fail (they're made by the lowest bidder, remember..?), lethal stuff goes the wrong direction. Wrong turns, bad choices, confused instructions and, above all, mind-numbingly pointless random shit that just happens.

Shit just happens.

You try to tell normal people this and they nod solemnly like they understand. But they're kidding themselves, and you. They have no idea, and because they have no idea they have no real understanding that every time they support some pencil-headed cracker ranting about "drawing a line in the sand" and "fighting them there" they're inviting all this random shit out into the daylight to kill and maim and fuck-up the people they send to do this drawing and fighting.

Anyway, that's just the Way Things Are and I have no hope that they will change or expectation they will change, but I sure wish I thought that some sort of change was possible.

And while we're on the subject, Ta-nehisi Coates has some smart things to say about the subject of police, society, and how they intersect in the same issue.

Off the subject...

I know sort of in a "I know this exists but don't really pay attention" sort of way that there are all sorts of creative-type people who produce stories and artwork based on George Lucas' Star Wars universe (largely based on my son's early fascination with the brand).

But I'd never seen these: Imperial (and Rebel) propaganda posters.

But...makes sense, right? Two factions fighting for control of the same polity...why wouldn't they have their own Office of Special Services cranking out propaganda. Whatever the Umpteieth-Century version of YouTube videos would be, pamphlets, and, of course, posters.


So...speaking of movies and did I mention the Girl's thing with getting up early?

She's always been my light sleeper, ever since she was a tiny. Her current position is that her back bedroom creeps her out because "it's near the basement and there are spiders there". So she wakes up in the early predawn, takes her blanket, shuffles into the front room and curls up on the couch. She usually goes back to sleep (though not always, and often not deeply) so that when I wake up early - and other than Little Miss I am the earliest riser in the Little House - she is there when I get my coffee and settle on the couch to check the weather and traffic. She usually cuddles up to me and we share a quiet time until I have to get dressed for work.

Usually I turn off the television after I get the weather report. There's just not much on the damn thing, anyway, and usually even less at oh-five-thirty. But every so often I spend a moment or two channel-surfing and it was doing that this morning that I blundered across Land of Doom.

The benefits of early-morning television are subtle. For example, had I not encountered this treasure I would have been forever ignorant that in Land of Doom's post-apocalyptic hellscape the one thing everyone will have is...hair.

Lots and lots of ginormous mall hair.

Oh, and studded leather. And vehicles with bizarre, pointlessly jagged (or jaggedly pointless..?) sheet metal finials.

But mostly big hair. Maybe that's what's really in store for us after the Third World War; cannibals, studded leather, and Eighties mall hair.

Or maybe it was just the Eighties.

The best thing about this rascal was that the heroine, "Harmony", had the least-poofy mall hair of any of the leads. Her 'do was downright post-apoca-thenticly ratty looking.

The worst thing, though, was that she also had no visible acting talent, or, at best, no more than the other leads and her character was written so as to expose the worst of her liability - "Harmony" was kind of a grouchy asshole. Understandable in the rapey, leather-studded-mall-hair world of post-apocalyptic whereever, but hard to make her or the actress who played her appealing.

"Harmony"'s lack-of-anything-approaching-charisma actually got me running to IMBD and Wikipedia to track down the woman who played her and, mirable dictu, she turns out to have been a very dim Eighties sort of star; Deborah Rennard, whose claim to what-passes-for-fame is that she played "J.R. Ewing's loyal secretary Sylvia "Sly" Lovegren" (according to her Wiki entry).

Now that may be the most-Eighties-form of "celebrity" I can think of. Seriously. "One of J.R.'s secretaries on Dallas". Is that perfect, or what? Even a recurring part as one of Thomas Magnum's girlfriends or a dancer in a Robert Plant music video wouldn't have touched all the Eighties bases the way that one does. And it also kind of explains why 1) she got cast in Land of Doom in the first place and 2) why she couldn't act her way out of that post-apocalyptic paper bag. I mean..."one of J.R. Ewing's secretaries..." Roll that one around in your brain a while and consider the sort of "acting talent" it implies. "One of J.R. Ewing's secretaries..."

Fucking boxcar.

Anyway, if you're looking for some Eighties post-apocalyptic-mall-hair goodness don't overlook Land of Doom. Heads do not roll. Fingers roll. Four stars for Deborah Rennard for NOT running around the post-apocalyptic wasteland in a studded metal bikini.

Joe Bob says; check it out.

(And from my searching I note with a sort of muted regret that Ms. Rennard appears to be newly unhitched from her husband of 13 years. Girlfriend paid her dues back in '86 when she filmed this turkey, girlfriend, so I'm sorry to hear that. Ouch, Deb. Damn. Sucks. I've been there.)

And...what else do you do in the Dead Time other than watch bad Eighties flicks?

You read, of course.

So...here's what I'm reading, and some hip-pocket reviews if you're interested;

The Enemy at the Gates (Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe), Andrew Wheatcroft 2007

I picked this up to reasearch the next "battle" post, the 1683 Siege of Vienna, and IMO the NY Times review rates it higher than I would. It's not a bad general-history of the conflict between the Habsburg domains and the Ottomans between the late 16th Century and the early 18th, and Wheatcroft does a decent job of detailing the actual conduct of the siege and the engagement of 12 SEP 1683 that broke it and the Ottoman invasion of south-central Europe. He does much less well at trying to explain the complexity of the relationship between the powers and, particularly, how and why the Ottoman Empire receded in the 19th and 20th Centuries. His attempt to link the conflict to the modern troubles between the Islamic World and the West is even less realized and less successful, coming across as a hastily-tacked-on marketing gimmick rather than a thought-out coda to his historical account.

Well worth the effort, however, if you're interested in the military and political details of the 17th Century Austro-Turkish wars. And, winged hussars, man! What could be fucking cooler than winged hussars? Joe Bob says check THAT out..!
Chicacabra (Tom Beland, 2014)

One thing about drawing cartoons is that I am always on the lookout for work I like by others who draw. This little book caught my eye at my local comic shop and I have already read and re-read it a dozen times. It works on every level; as a memoir (the artist talks about how he pulled a great deal of his struggle with depression into the story) and as a valentine to his home of Puerto Rico, as an adventure, as a "horror story", and as a momento mori.

Isabel's - the heroine's - world is full of life and yet full of death; her mother is slowly dying and her father is dead. She has tried suicide before we meet her. But she can't quite escape the lively world of San Juan, her friends, her enemies, and, of course, the titular chupacabra who adopts her (or is adopted by her...) and changes everything. The story is complex and fun, the characters are lively and likeable (even the "bad guy"), and it's above all a hell of a good read.

Of course all of this would be unworkable if the artwork was poor, but Beland finds a nice balance between realism and "comic" in his linework and his composition is outstanding; the story balances his words and his pictures to move forward seamlessly. I admit; I'm a sucker for "clean" lines, and Beland's are impeccable. The rumor is that there's another in the works, and I'm already ready.

Oh...one last item...

Let me start by saying that I yield to no one in my contempt for the Worst Newspaper in the World (by the way...did I ever get around to mentioning that the Oregonian now only actually publishes a print edition something like twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays? No shit. Really. We are a "major city" without a daily paper, not that the O, with it's assload of wire-service copy and idiotic "human interest" stories was any piece of work when it did run every day...) and I like to think that I've been pretty consistent in that contempt here ever since the days of the Death Cat back in 2007.

Every so often I get caught up in one of these moronic "human interest" stories. Usually it involves someone being stupid, naked, or both, but pets may be involved, too, as they are here, in the tale of Camo the Cat and The Giant Box Spring:
"Camo used to like to hide in a hole in her box spring when he was upset. Dufek didn't know that, though, because Crews had taped over the hole and shielded it with boxes when she was using the box spring.

So, when Dufek tried to be a helpful boyfriend and sell her bed while she was at work, he neglected to check for felines in the box spring.
My ass. I call bullshit; I think he was toasted. I mean...think about it. He was home selling shit on Craigslist while she was working? So, unemployed much? So loafer boyfriend smokes a big ol' bowl of now-legal-in-Oregon "Hillsboro Windowbox" and by the time he wrestles the box spring out the door and down to the buyer's car he's so fried he couldn't hear the cat if it had been meowing the fucking Anvil Chorus and hammering on a kettledrum.

Sorry. Anyway...
He realized his mistake minutes after helping the buyer strap the bed to the roof of a car. But by then, Camo was off on his unexpected adventure."
Adventure is right. This poor moggie got rocketed across the Tualatin Valley on top of some joker's car because "helpful" boyfriend sells it along with a box spring, ended up (I'm guessing) tumbling out around the airfield in Hillsboro and spending a week or so lost, frightened, and injured.

But...there's a happy ending; kitty was found and brought back to its owner who - hopefully - either gets a box spring without a cat flap or a smarter boyfriend.
Or both.

That's all I got. Hope your Dead Time is more fun and productive than mine..!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Christmas Story

Odd...this occurred to me today on the way in to work. I haven't thought of this time, and place, and the people connected with both for years. But it's Christmas time, and this is a Christmas story.

(Optional musical accompanyment to this story, The Wexford Carol with Yo-yo Ma and Alison Krauss)

More than fifteen years ago - it must have been at least that long, since I had left the company by 1999 and the company itself fell apart within another couple of years after that - the company I then worked for had its annual Christmas party. That year it was lunch at a local restaurant down along the Willamette River.

Unlike most "company parties" this really was a genuine party. We were a pretty friendly group then - this must have been some time in the early-mid-90s, before the outfit fell apart and the desertions and bickering started in earnest - we liked each other and our work, and so when the whole mob adjourned in the middle of a workday a couple of days before the holiday it was to enjoy a good meal and a pleasant time in one anothers' company. I remember it as being a very convivial afternoon.

We were sitting around after the meal, probably having drinks and inventing reasons not to go back to work, when the hydrogeologist, a woman named Nancy Speaker, began to softly sing The Coventry Carol.

I love and know that carol, and so I dropped in and sang the harmony along with her. Our voices blended well; her clear contralto and my bass-baritone dark and deep underneath, and - although we had never sang together and, indeed, didn't know each other could sing - had a fortunate ability to support each other's passage from melody to harmony and back.

We finished together. Sat, and smiled at each other, and I began Silent Night.

We proceeded to sing perhaps another half dozen or so carols. Nobody else joined in...but no one protested, either. Our co-workers quietly sat and listened, smiling pleasantly. By the time we were done the whole corner of the restaurant was watching and listening to this strange little spontaneous concert.

Try and imagine how odd that must have seemed if you'd have wandered into the midst of it; there, in that public place, with the broad river flowing winter-dark with soil outside the great window-wall below the unrelenting gray sky of the Dark Months, all those tables full of perfect strangers, gathered only through random chance - through their own seperate reasons and their own seperate lives converging there and then - sitting together listening to the voices of two other strangers rising though the silent room with the old songs of mystic birth and redemption.

When we finished there was no fuss or applause but just a long thoughtful quiet; it was as if we had not performed but had sung out loud what everyone else was feeling and thinking at that time of the year. We smiled and they smiled back and we had our last drinks and gathered our coats and left.

The oddest part was that it was that if you'd have scripted this as a scene in a Hallmark Channel Christmas film I'd have laughed it out of sight as completely, ridiculously, unreal. If you'd have suggested it to me earlier I'd have been too embarassed to have even considered doing it. But it happened, and I did, and at the time it seemed right; not just right but perfect.

And for all that it has been years and miles since that time, and place, and those people, have vanished...it is one of my most beloved Christmas moments. And for no reason other than my own sentimental remembrance of that time I wanted to share it with you.

May you all have a peaceful and joyous season.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Uncivil Servants

The NYPD seems to have forgotten – not exactly surprising, given the “thin blue line” mentality that seems to have infected a hell of a lot of coppers’ brains in the past couple of decades – that their supposed responsibility is to protect the public.
Not themselves.

Not each other.

The public.

Which means that 1) when they fuck up and shoot 12-year-olds, or people who aren’t armed or dangerous, or mentally ill people, or just plain fuck up and shoot someone by mistake - that they should expect to get a shit-ton of abuse from the public, whose protection-as-their-primary-responsibility-pooch they have clearly screwed like a Johhny Holmes-Seka all-night-porn-o-thon, and 2) they need to start grabbing a whole lot of humble when they GET that shit-ton of abuse.

Because they HAVE screwed up, the worst possibly screw-up they could screw up, and they need to STFU and go on about ensuring that the copper who screwed up is paying for his screw-up.

And, frankly, if the coppers had any sense they’d see that, too. It doesn’t help the occupiers if the occupied begin fearing the troops’ tendency for random shootings MORE than they fear the non-random consequences of defying the troops. If you’re gonna get shot anyway, why the hell NOT get shot taking a slap at one of “those bastards”, instead?
Between the goddamn GOP torture-lovers and the goddamn CIA torturers and the goddamn NSA spooks and the goddamn NYPD hooligans it seems to me like there’s a whole lot of “civil servants” that need to be taken firmly by the stacking swivel and beaten back to an acceptable level of servitude with some dimension lumber.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Tortured logic

Y'know what may be the saddest part of the whole "I guess we DO torture..." business?

The degree to which being opposed to torturing helpless prisoners is being cast as a "liberal" issue.

Fuck that.

Torture is among the lowest, vilest, most despicable of crimes. There is no excuse for it other than fear and desperation. As I said earlier; I would harm a captive if I believed that it would save people who depended on me. But then - I would I hope, if I was man enough - I would accept my own guilt and turn myself in with the evidence of my acts as the criminal I was and stand trial for my wrongs.

Torture IS wrong. The wrongest of wrongs. There shouldn't really be any argument over that; it's not a liberal wrong or a conservative wrong, it's a human wrong.


But somehow this is all getting twisted around into a "liberal" versus "conservative" issue. The peripatetic "conservative" commentor "no one" - who has made his appearance here before as well as over at the MilPub and Jim and Lisa's joint - just described my disgust and horror that my country is now unquestionably in the same class as Imperial Japan and Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany as industrial states that torture their captives as a "liberal rant" (it's over at the 'Pub, but you get the picture).

And, y'know what? That just saddens and sickens me even more.

Because I grew up in a "conservative" house. My father the Master Chief was a rock-ribbed Republican up until the Eighties when he grew sick of Reagan's "government is the problem" bullshit. Many of the most decent, honorable people I know are or were "conservative".

But by that very definition the notion that the nation they love, that I love, could act like the Kempeitai or the NKVD is sickening and saddening to them as it is to me.

I'm sorry, but if you think that wanting to coldcock Dick Cheney for being a cowardly sonofabitch who ran like a frightened sissy when his country called on him to fight but loves the idea of having one of his lackeys torture some A-rab is a "liberal rant" rather than just being justifiably insanely outraged at the craven fucker's utter gall you are completely fucked up like a football bat.

Russia's "interesting position" gets a little more interesting

Back in August (when the Guns of August were thundering in the eastern parts of was still nominally "Ukraine") over at MilPub my buddy Al wrote about the Curious Case of Russia. He noted that:
"The Cold War was primarily a standoff between two military powers. The Soviet impact on, and involvement in, the world's economy was negligible. Probably one of the major reasons the USSR collapsed. It was Soviet military, and the resultant political power, that we wanted to keep in check. We are now dealing with a new Russia, and that new Russia has become an economic player far greater than the old Soviet Union. Now, when Russia rattles it's political saber, there are economic ramifications of concern. Yet we still seem to be stuck in the Cold War mentality that Russia is always to be opposed."
and quoted an editorial from one of the Athenian newspapers that in their opinion "...a "stable and powerful Russia" is a key ingredient to global economic security."

I'm kind of intrigued by this for several reasons.

One is that it tends to reinforce my suspicions that the rump-Soviet state is, in fact, what I called it back in August: "...a lot of the Soviet weaknesses...overlaid...with 1) a thicker layer of corruption and 2) an excessive, almost-Nigerian-level of extraction resource dependency." The Post article makes an interesting point, that:
"There's one way, and only one way, that this ends: with capital controls. Or, in plain English, by making it illegal for people or companies to turn their rubles into foreign currency. That would get rid of the selling pressure, and let the ruble settle at a new, lower equilibrium. Putin, though, is loath to use capital controls, because his political base—the oligarchs—wants to move their money abroad, whether that's to their London or New York hideouts."
So the "tyrant" is an economic hostage to his political condotierri, another little reminder of the old saying about doing anything with bayonets (or in this case, the long knives of your criminal crony-capitalist "pals"...) except sitting on them.

The other is that it gives me a nasty little cat-smile remembering all the Usual Idiots who were fulminating about how manly Vladi Putin was and how the United States needed a sharp dose of his shirtless manly manliness to counteract the emo-girly-man Kenyan Usurper.

To quote O'Brien from the Post: "At this rate Putin will be riding around shirtless because he can't afford one anymore."
Perhaps the single most worrying part about this is the reminder that Russia - still a major Eurasian power and a nuclear one at that - is neither stable nor as powerful as it thinks it is.

This isn't to talk up my own country, whose political response to the Great Recession has been to double- and triple-down on the great shift to oligarchic meanness and stupidity that characterized the fucking Hoover Administration, but to note that for all that my country seems to be overrun with morons who think that "government is the problem" that if you deliberately set things up to govern badly it will be badly governed. And that after a bad government the next-worse idea is to turn the levers of power over to a bunch of rich pricks whose only concern is their own profit. That's the sort of thing about the incoming Republican Congress (as expressed recently in the loathsome Wall Street Welfare rider to the cromnibus spending bill...) that makes me sleep poorly at times.

But I don't think I'd be sleeping nearly as well if I lived in Gdansk, or Tallinn.

Friday, December 12, 2014

It profits a man nothing to sell his soul for the entire world...

...but for Wales?

I'm having a hard time saying anything coherent at the moment because my mind keeps circling the sewer drain of torture that is the national honor of my country, the country I served for 22 years as a soldier, the country I pledged to defend from all enemies foreign and domestic.

Because the domestic enemies who committed these crimes shat on that honor, and all for nothing.

Why do I say that? Given that the "defenders" of these crimes are raging and swearing that the crimes were done to protect me, that the crimes DID protect me in that they obtained intelligence that defeated nefarious plots and evil plans.

To which I say: bullshit.

Let's stop a minute and think about this.

Let's say that all this went down like the torturers and their buddies say it did. Let's say that the heroic CIA torturers knew that Evil Abu Badguy knew where the nuke was hidden. Knew it. Let's say that was you, or me, and we knew that the goddamn dune coon was holding information that could save lives if we just electrified his nuts long enough.

Would you be crankin' that generator?

I would.

Yes, I would. I know because I had to think about the possibility that I might end up with enemy prisoners of war that I knew had intel that could save my troops if I could get it quickly enough, and what would I do then?

Here's the thing, though. I'd be a criminal, a war criminal. My guys would be alive, so to me it'd be worth it. But I couldn't - and, I hope - wouldn't try to deny what I'd done.

I hope I'd have the guts to hunt up the nearest provost marshal and turn myself in.

So ISTM that the thing that sets off my bullshit detector is that the torturers and their masters went to such lengths to hide and destroy the evidence of what they did. If this really was "worth it", if I'm the torturer and my torturing really had produced some sort of valuable intelligence?

I'd have kept those cameras rolling.

Rolling through every horrific thing I did, every vile atrocity I worked on some helpless sonofabitch, every sob, every scream. Rolling as the broken bastard choked out the address of the hidden nuke, the name of the contact, the details of the murderous plan.

I'd present myself and that tape before a judge, or a jury, and say, look, here is what I did to save you. Here is how I did save you.

And then I'd throw myself on the mercy of the court.

Because I would be guilty. I'd just know that no judge, no jury, in America would convict me and if they did no President would be able to refrain from pardoning me. Because my guilt was their guilt, too; they lived because I did horrors in their name.

And yet...there is none of this.

So I know there was no hidden nuke. No contact, no plan, no secret. Just what torture does best at producing; what the torturer wants to hear.

These people tortured because they wanted confessions, for the same reasons that the Inquisition and the NKVD tortured. They wanted confessions. They wanted what they needed for their auto-de-fe, for their show-trial, they wanted to hear that we needed to fight them there so we didn't have to fight them here, that the smoking gun was going to be a mushroom cloud, that they hated our freedoms, that they were coming to kill us.

They wanted to make us afraid, and they did.

So these fucking bastards sold our honor, my honor, for nothing. Nothing. Not a goddamn thing. For worthless fucking bullshit to support their goddamn lies. For a mess of goddamn pottage.

And I think I'm as furious about the worthlessness of the reasons as for the infamy of the torture itself.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

"We do not torture"

You don't say?

To me the saddest part about this hot mess is that we pretty much all knew all of this all along. We knew what was going on, or, at least, that something fairly awful was going on, and didn't care enough to make a fuss about knowing the details or care enough to stop it.

And make no mistake; without punishment there is no reason to assume that this won't happen again. There's always a good reason for breaking the laws. Smoking guns become mushroom clouds. Not fighting them there means fighting them here. They hate our freedoms. They're coming to kill us.

But then you find that if you cut down the laws to get at the devil, when you catch him you'll find that there is nowhere for you to shelter from the broad highway of evil you've opened up, the laws all being flat.

Update: The always-eloquent Charlie Pierce has more. And worse. And much, much more and much, much worse.
"I no longer take seriously anyone, in or out of government, who talks about "the debate" over whether the United States tortured people. The only debate left is the debate over whether or not it will remain the policy of this nation to torture people, or to outsource the job of torturing people, or to otherwise commit moral and national suicide by euphemism.

Anyone who still believes there's a "debate" over whether or not the United States, using techniques previously used by the Japanese Imperial Army, the Gestapo, the North Korean People's Army, and the KGB, tortured people is an idiot and a coward and I have no time for them. Not any more. Debate's over. We became what they think we are. And worse. This is not debatable and, alas, it is anything but a surprise."

Sunday, December 07, 2014


I got pulled over the other night.

Reason I thought about that is that Mannion - whose opinion on cinema I just cited - has a post up about being jacked around by cops.

The thing about my experience is that it was clearly a bullshit stop. I was under the speed limit, in a very quiet street, and other than that these gomers had no real reason to pull me over. The excuse the sheriff's deputy used was that I "had a headlight out", which is something you can see every night you drive around here - we have no annual state inspection, so there's no real pressure to replace a dud headlight - but the real reason is that I was tired and driving cautiously which to these jokers probably meant "this guy's probably had a few, so let's stop him and see what we can find."

They went into full-on "Cops" mode; lit up the searchlight, came up on both sides of the vehicle...and suddenly realized that 1) I was a white guy wearing a safety vest 2) driving a pickup with a company logo on the side. They did the usual ID check just because otherwise it would have been WAY too obvious that is was a bullshit stop and then let me walk even though the insurance card I presented was expired (I had the current one in the key-pouch but had forgotten that was where it was).

I didn't get jacked around...other than 15 minutes of my life that I'll never get back. And I was very polite and cooperative, so there were no other consequences. But I drove away swearing a blue streak at the Washington County Sheriff's Department from the Sheriff himself to the lowest garage mechanic as a bunch of ticket-happy officious assholes.

There's been a lot of coverage about "militarized police" and the like in the wake of fairly obviously moron-grade fuckup shootings by trigger-happy cops. But IMO these sorts of bullshit traffic stops are just as bad for the coppers' standing in the public eye. They're so obviously about "we can fuck with these peons so let's do it and find out what happens" that it's difficult for the citizens involved to walk away with much respect for the cops. Which is pretty crucial, given that when the impartiality of the enforcers of the law becomes obviously questionable respect for the law itself comes into question as well.

So much for Officer Friendly.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Spit Spot

By purest happenstance the Bride and I watched Saving Mister Banks last night.
To get the film itself upfront let me say that we both enjoyed it and Tom Hanks' and Emma Thompson's work as the two central characters Walt Disney and P.L. Travers despite the reality that both portrayals were, shall we say, less than full realizations of the actual people portrayed.

And that the story itself played more than a little loose with the truth. We weren't watching it as a documentary but as an entertainment and as an entertainment it succeeded.

But I'm not here to review the film. For one thing, I certainly couldn't do better on the subject than Lance Mannion already has, so if you're interested in more about the film, the actors, and the Disney-Travers imbroglio itself let me direct you to his two posts on the subject, here, and here.

For another, what I wanted to talk about is what the film made me think about the peculiar relationship between books and films - specifically children's books and children's films - and the relationship between them both and the adults whose children encounter them.

I've talked about my general approach to cinematic adaptations of beloved books when discussing the ongoing Peter Jackson adaptation of The Hobbit. I'm just not a purist about the whole business of "book versus film". Perhaps it has something to do with having tried to write both "literary" stories, plays, and screenplays. They're very different, and the sorts of things that work well on the printed page often fail disastrously on a stage or a screen. Perhaps its just that there are very few books I'm "passionate" about to the point of being seriously arsed if someone changes bits and pieces of them to make a flick out of them.

Whatever the reason I just don't have much trouble with a screenwriter, or director, or playwright, making changes - even big changes - in a book or story to adapt it for the screen or stage.

But I do look at the results this way.

Making those changes make the resulting play, or film, a different work, and sometimes a very different work.

So the film version of The Hobbit isn't "The Hobbit", a story written by J.R.R. Tolkien. It's a film by Peter Jackson that contains many likenesses and ideas from the Tolkien story, but it's not the same story. It's "based" on the story. It may have a few, or many, critical differences. You can be pleased, or disappointed, by characters or scenes or dialogue or storylines added or dropped (get me going some time on the whole Disappearing-Faramir-Eowyn-Romance business from the Jackson Return of the King segment of his Lord of the Rings cycle) and your love or loathing for the film adaptation may well be affected by that pleasure or disappointment.

But it seems foolish to me for the reader or viewer to be incensed by the changes existing. It's a film, it's not the book. It's going to be different. You can like or loathe the sort of changes, but not that there ARE differences. Difference is as certain to follow a film adaptation of a book as the night the day and railing at them is cursing the darkness - and the candle for not being the sun - instead of appreciating the candle for what it is.


That said, I can understand an author being arsed enough to forbid giving permission for her or his work to be adapted for the screen, in that there WILL be those changes. The author has only two choices after selling the rights; to be in charge of overseeing those changes (as, for instance, J.K. Rowling is said to have been with the Harry Potter series), or to be so un-wedded to their work as to be unconcerned how it is changed and how it affects their written work.

Because there's a very great danger that the film version, being louder and brighter and more kinetic than the written version, will become the work itself, the commentary will become the canon, and copy will eclipse the original in the minds and hearts of the viewers.

That happened to my own spawn with the film version of Cressida Cowell's How To Train Your Dragon.

They luuuurvvvved the movie. Loved it, loved it, loved it. They watched the much-lesser television series with drooling enchantment and dragged me off to see the second installment of the film at the movie house; fortunately I enjoyed both films well enough to find them tolerable and in places genuinely enjoyable. But something in me prickled at the thought of leaving the porch-monkeys there.

Being a bookish sort of daddy I thought that we should go to the well, so I picked up a copy of one of Cowell's "Dragon" books (it was the fourth in the series, How To Cheat A Dragon's Curse, if I recall correctly) and announced that this was the next in the "Bedtime Story" series.
[Let me insert here that the Small One loves to be read to at bedtime. She reads well enough one her own and could read the sort of young adult/middle reader/"chapter books" we choose. It's not the stories, it's the act of reading; the selection of the book, the cuddling together on the grownups' bed, the reminder of where we left off the evening before...and then the performance art of reading the story, with Daddy acting out the voices of the characters and Little Missy asking all sorts of pointless questions that Daddy will invariably answer with the caustic reply "Why don't we read the story and find out?" applied over the rim of his reading glasses. It's a sort of performance art, and Missy loves it well beyond the value of the stories themselves, and I have to admit I enjoy it, too.]
The result?

"Ewww! I hate this book!" "Its sooooo boring!" "I hate that Toothless!" (this was The Boy, who never really got past the fact that in the book his beloved film version giant-black-cat-like dragon was a petulent little serpent about the size of a fox terrier)

We never got past page fifty or so; the kiddos just flat-out refused. For them the film version was the "real" story, the canon; the genuine, original story was for them a sort of poor reworking of what they'd seen on the screen.

Whatever Cressida Cowell got from selling the rights to her story, what she didn't get was the affection of my kids for it but the complete opposite; they now consider her work an inferior version of the film.

After seeing Saving Mister Banks the first thing I did was go to the computer and reserve a copy of Mary Poppins, She Wrote, Valerie Larson's biography of Travers...and the original Mary Poppins.

Because, you see, I've never read the book.

The only "Mary Poppins" I know is Julie Andrews, singing and dancing cheerfully through the primary-colored Disney version of the story. Mannion has read the Travers book and loathes it, but I'm not sure whether my taste will run with his. But now I'm curious to find out what Travers was protecting.

Because she was protecting it, and not from her fantastic fears or her daddy-issues, but from what it has become since 1964; a piece of incunabula, something more spoken of than read, the lost source of what became the great river of Disney-Poppins merchandising. From the coating of sentimentality that the Magic Kingdom lays over everything like sweet venom. From Julie Andrews sunnily playing the character Travers wrote like this:

"What did I say?" said Mary Poppins in that cold, clear voice that was always a Warning.

That isn't - as Hanks' Disney claims in the film - "letting the story finish itself". That's a whole different person in a whole 'nother story. And I suspect that Travers knew, complex soul that she was, that now that she'd sold her soul for 5% of the gross that she was going to have a very, very difficult time living with that.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Bad Samurai

Came across this little snipbit while researching the Bun'ei 11 post from last month and it was too good not to share with you. It's from Thomas Conlan's In Little Need of Divine Intervention; his 2001 study of the Mongol Invasion Scrolls of Takezaki Suenaga.
Keep this in mind; this is Suenaga's own story, most likely as told by him to his artist(s)/calligraphers, and intended to win him recognition from the bakufu. This is our Boy from Higo trying to make himself look good in front of the boss. Got it? So, here's Suenaga in 1281, having finally weaseled his way onto an assault boat and gotten some Mongol, reporting to his superior, Gota no Goro Totoshi (who is described by Takezaki as having been "despatched from the Kanto", meaning that he was the shikken's direct appointment as commander of forces in Hakata in 1281):
"At dawn on the sixth, I arrived at Gota Goro's temporary lodging and explained in detail what had happened in battle.

"I knew this is what you would say," he said. "You haven't changed from (the) previous battles. Without your own boat, you repeatedly lied in order to join the fighting. You are really the baddest man around! I will notify our commanders about you. I also heard that Shikibu no bo will stand for you as a witness. If there are any further questions, have them contact me." And so Gota Goro also volunteered to stand as a witness for me."
Stand as a witness? Stand as a witness to you being the biggest damn fuckstick in Kyushu sounds more like, Takezaki.

Keep in mind that the Japanese are among the most circumspect people and written Japanese the most euphemistic language in the known world. Gota Goro calling our boy Takezaki the "baddest man around" translates into modern American English as "Jesus Fucking Kami, what a ginormous goddamn fucking asshole you are, Suenaga!" But this is the Higo Hellraiser's idea of "standing witness" for him; he deliberately included this story in the most polished resume' he could think of as a way of claiming a reward.

Did this guy Takezaki have some big brass ones, or what?

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Out of the mouths

My kid used the word "worshed" the other day and I realized that I have several peculiar verbal tics. That's one of them.

For the English word to describe what you do with dirty clothes I say "Did you put your socks in the worsh?"

I don't know why I do this. I don't call folding money "corsh" or a mixture of meat and potatoes "horsh". It's just how I pronounce the word wash, and I don't remember why the hell I do it.

Now that I have had to actually think about it I'm embarassed by it and have consciously tried to amend my speech to the correct pronunciation, "wash".

Now that I think of it, I realize that I've picked up a couple of these odd verbal tics.

I use the word "arsed" in the sense of "worked up over" or "bothered to"; "It isn't something I got arsed enough about to get done...". This is a Britishism, and I suspect I picked it up from listening/reading about English soccer.

When I'm exasperated about something I will often say "Jesus wept!" as a way of saying "What a ridiculous fuck-up!" I do know wherte I got this; from reading that the two words are the shortest verse in the Bible. I liked that, and somehow it found its way into my speech.

If someone tells me something obvious, or something that I have already agreed to, I will often reply "There you go." (or if in rough company "There you fucking go."). This was my old drill sergeant SSG Layne's reaction to anything he agreed with (spoken, by the way, in his very distinctive Caribbean accent with the accent on the first word: "Dere you fokkin' go!") and it has stuck with me.

When I was little we had a cat named "Possum", and ever since all cats (when speaking to the cat) are "possum", as in "Who's da sweet fluffly li'l possum?" (said in babytalk voice while rubbing cat's chin).
The cats don't seem to care one way or the other but, then, cats should all be named whatever the sound of a can of cat food opening sounds like.

So. Those are my verbal tics, oddities, and peculiarities. I have no idea why this suddenly occurred to me, but there it is. Embarrassing, perhaps, but better than running around a comic convention in nekomimi ears, so there's that.

Do you have any of these odd little verbal tics, and, if so, what are they?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Battles That Changed History: Bun'ei (文永の役 Bun'ei no eki or First Hakata Bay) 1274

文永の役 (Bun'ei/First Hakata Bay)

Date: 19 NOV 1274AD (Bun'ei 11, 20th day of the 10th month)
Note on dates: Traditional Japanese dates are based on a 年号, nengō, literally a "year-name" that was typically chosen by the Imperial court to celebrate important occasions such as the accession of a new emperor or some auspicious event in his reign. 文永, Bun'ei, was the name chosen for something - frankly, I have no idea what - that occurred in the reign of 亀山天皇, Kameyama-tenno, Emperor Kameyama, 90th in the traditional succession. You'll note that in the Imperial calendar the date would have been rendered as 20 OCT - the 20th day of the 10th month...but by the Western Gregorian calendar the date is 19 NOV, one month later. Before you think "that's weird" remember that the Julian calendar was nearly a month different from the Gregorian when the changeover took place in most of the Western world in the 18th Century.
Forces Engaged: Japanese - The Japanese defenders that met the Mongol invaders at the shores along Hakata Bay were drawn from the gokenin, the household troops of the various clans of the island of Kyūshū. From the paucity of sources - we'll get to that in just a bit - it's difficult to tell how many of these troops and what type were on the north shore of the island that day.

We can discount the Mongol statements of 100,000 or more found in the Yuan Shi. This is pure propaganda designed to excuse the failure of the first invasion. The combined strength of the two sides at the Battle of Sekigahara fought nearly 300 years later, at a time when Japanese feudal militarization was at its height, was something like 160,000 all arms; I doubt if the bakufu could have raised 100,000 troops from all of Japan in 1274.

We have no direct strength reports from the Japanese sources. In the absence more modern estimates run from somewhere in the mid-thousands, 4,000 to 6,000, to as high as 10,000-12,000 all arms, a maximum I find easily believable, because:

1. The 鎌倉幕府, Kamakura bakufu or Kamakura shogunate, was a damn good military organization for it's time. Japan typically fought "above its weight" in the premodern period simply because the Japanese feudal organization was better logistically and organizationally than many of its contemporaries. The 13th Century shogunate was hardly the sleek military bureaucracy of the Tokugawa Era, as we'll see, but it was still well able to field, supply, and feed a significant force for some time, and

2. The battle took place in October after the harvest was in and the bulk of the peasant footsoldiers (that would eventually become the 足軽 ashigaru of the high feudal wars of the 16th and 17th Centuries) would have been freed of their agricultural responsibilities, and

3. The invaders had been knocking on the door for some time; this wasn't a surprise attack. Mongol embassies had arrived in Japan in March and September of 1269, again in September of 1271; and finally in May of 1272, each time with a message from the court of the Khan that pretty much boiled down to "Nice little island you got...shame if anything happened to it."

The Wiki entry for the Mongol Invasions notes that
"The Kamakura shogunate (Bakufu) under Tokimune ordered all those who held fiefs in Kyūshū (the area closest to Korea, and thus most likely to be attacked) to return to their lands, and forces in Kyūshū moved west, further securing the most likely landing points. After acknowledging its impotence, the Imperial Court led great prayer services, and much government business was put off to deal with this crisis."
So let's guess that the Japanese defense consisted of somewhere around 6,000-10,000.

This might be on the high side - Turnbull (2010) gives 4,000 to 6,000 as his guess - but clearly the Japanese force numbered more than a couple of thousand (that would have been blown away within hours) but less than "tens of thousands" (that would probably have managed to hold at the beaches without much trouble).

The problem, though, is even guessing the total that we still have no real notion of how this force broke down.

We know that the hard core of the Japanese defense was the 武士, bushi; the armored warrior we know as samurai; let's use the latter term as the more familiar to a Western reader.

Whatever you called them, at the time of the invasion these troops would have been primarily armored mounted archers, the bow (弓, yumi) the principal weapon. The better-known 刀, katana or "samurai sword", was not in widespread use during the 13th Century, the mounted man preferring the 太刀, tachi or longsword but preferring the bow to both.

The method of engagement was long-range arrow fire, the idea being to pick off your enemy with a superbly placed shot while riding around him. At some point the two sides got stuck in at handstrokes, but the ride-and-shoot part was the best part as far as these armored knights were concerned.

And I should note that in his general attitude the high-status 13th Century Japanese warrior was more-or-less a close relative of his contemporary the feudal European knight. He was NOT the fanatically-loyal-and-obedient automaton of the 17th Century. He was feudal in the military sense to the ends of the tassels on his agemaki; all about his own glory and his rep. His whole thing was battle, specifically, single-combat with an equal enemy whose death would bring him fame and riches. He was aggressive as hell but even then, as we'll see, the problem wasn't getting him to fight, it was trying to get him to fight where and when and how you wanted him to.

He was a pain in the fucking ass, frankly, and a hell of a lot of Japanese history can be explained by trying to figure out what the right answer would be to the simple question "How do we control these kami-damned samurai?"

The samurai families were about 10% of the population of Japan in the 18th and 19th Centuries but the group would have been at significantly over-represented at Hakata bay in Bun-ei 11. Japanese troops had little experience at that point fighting outside Japan or enemies other than Japanese, and the primary objective of the bushi was, as I've said, individual glory and single-combat; the notion of a "tailored force package" was gibberish to the 13th Century Japanese commanders. So it's very probable that the Hakata force was samurai-heavy, full of guys looking for glory and Mongol heads.

Let's assume that half to more than half the defenders - somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 - were mounted samurai. So here we've got a whole bunch of homicidal armored bowmen standing around that November day looking to mount up and kill something.

The quality of these soldiers would have been generally high but somewhat variable, ranging from well-trained, well-armed wealthy men with a fairly substantial fighting tail numbering in the dozens to single individuals who could barely scrape together enough money to afford the arms, armor, and mount, but all would have been fairly to very effective at the sort of individual mounted combat they specialized in.

But what about the rest of the gang?

Well, some of them would have been armored footsoldiers, probably another 2,000 to 3,000 or so. These would have been the poorer armed retainers of the local clans, not the large units of organized ashigaru infantry of the later Muromachi and Sengoku Periods. Their armor would have been the much less elaborate, probably the 胴丸, dō-maru style rather than the 大鎧, ō-yoroi, type worn by the knightly class and their primary weapons would probably have been some sort of polearm, 槍, yari, the straight-bladed spear or 薙刀, naginata, the glaive or curve-bladed spear with a sword in reserve. Some would have been archers, some, the humbler, might have had no more than a sword or two. Effective fighters in an individual sense, but not "infantry", much less an infantry unit or units in the way we think of them.

That would leave almost all of the remaining 2,000 or so as the rice-farmer sort of peasant levy. These poor sods would have been the humblies from the local samurai estates and usually dragged off their farms with all the enthusiasm of their European equivalents.

It's worth noting that raising the peasants was probably much less difficult for this fight than for the usual inter-clan feud; the Mongols had been very naughty on the way over to the Japanese home islands and the results of a Mongol landing would have been ugly even by Japanese-peasant-standards.
However even with their blood up the fighting value of these levies was probably debateable and their impact on the events of Bun'ei 11 questionable. Some probably had real spears or naginata but probably a bunch with nothing but a sharpened bamboo spear, a rice-flail, or a pitchfork. Their ability to do more than more than stand in place is unlikely; even moving short distances without their becoming a mob is hard to imagine. But, as we'll see, much of the fighting for the Japanese side consisted of standing in one place.

So; perhaps 2,000-5,000 armored missile cavalry and another 2,000-3,000 armored melee infantry with a light infantry contingent of perhaps another 2,000 or so under the overall command of several of the 守護, shugo or military officials, of Kyūshū including Shimazu Hisatsune (shugo of Satsuma, Hyuga, and Osumi provinces) and Otomo Yoriyasu, shugo of Bungo, Buzen, and Higo provinces. The notional commander of this force would have been Shoni Tsunesuke, shugo of Hizen, Chikuzen, and Chikugo provinces as well as the islands of Ikishima and Tsushima, but my understanding is that this officer had no direct role in the combat at Hakata Bay.
A Brief Note on Provinces and Their Adminstration: The ancient internal divisions of Japan have a tangential relationship with the modern prefectures; there's a hint of similarity in the areas but the extents and the names are very different.

県, ken, or prefectures are the modern internal divisions of Japan, established in the 19th Century; Kyūshū has eight, including Okinawa. The modern prefectures are shown on the map at the beginning of the post. Go ahead and take a look. I'll wait.

OK, got it?

The older divisions were called 国, kuni, which is typically rendered into English as "provinces" or "counties". Of these, Kyūshū also had eight back in the day but the boundaries were very different. Here they are:

There's Hakata again, the orange circle in Chikuzen no kuni, Chikuzen Province.

In 1274 these administrative divisions were typically run by two representatives of the military government at Kamakura. The shugo you've heard already; this was the guy with the police and military powers, a sort of combined state adjutant general and state police commissioner and, especially in a remote province, the local magistrate.

His counterpart was the 地頭, jito, whose function was more administrative; he collected the imperial taxes and was more concerned with estate management, but he would also have been of the bushi class and was at bottom a fighting man. Both typically were appointed from the 御家, gokenin, military "nobility" that are described in the Wiki entry as "...descendants of former (independant land)owners, former peasants, or former samurai, who...were rewarded (with land and/or position). They also collected local taxes and ruled over territories they were entrusted with, but nominally didn't own (those lands). Because the shogun had usurped the emperor's power to nominate them, they owed loyalty only to him. As long as they remained faithful, they had considerable autonomy from the central government."

The defenders of 1274 would have been these gokenin, the feudal troops of the military ruler; nominally loyal to the Emperor and "Japan" but, in practice, owing their livelihoods to the bakufu and it's leaders and considering themselves men of their clan, first, then their region, and only lastly "Japanese". The men who defended the beach that day were not just removed from us in time; they were very much men of the Japan of 1274, a Japan which bears some likeness but as much or more difference to the Japan of 2014.

Forces of 大元, Dao Yuan, the Great Yuan Dynasty - 忽必烈;, The Great Khan, Kublai, had proclaimed the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty three years earlier in 1271 as part of the long conquest of the Chinese heartland by the Mongolyn Ezent Güren, the Mongol Empire founded by Genghis Khan in the early 13th Century. At the time of the Battle of Bun'ei Kublai's forces were still fighting to conquer the southern Song state in what is now the parts of China south of the Yangtze River. The Yuan had, however, already invaded and largely subdued the Korean peninsula and put a Yuan Quisling on the throne there. This will have an impact on the battle for Hakata Bay, as we'll see.

The hard core of the invasion force was probably roughly between a Tümen and one-and-a-half Tümen of the sort of Mongol troops that had swept out of the steppe of central Asia and conquered half the Eurasian world by the last quarter of the 13th Century. A Tümen was the basic grand tactical Mongol unit; 10,000 troops divided into decimal sub-units down to a 10-man aravt or squad.

The image we have of the Mongols of the 13th Century is "This Guy":

The squat, hard-faced horseman with his shaggy steppe pony, his floppy fut hat and his bow, peering patiently down from the ridge onto the peaceful village below, grim harbinger of Death.

The Mongol of our imagination is part of a Horde of light horsemen, swarming out of the dust and the forest, bows sleeting a deadly hail of arrows. That image impressed itself on the peoples of eastern Europe for more than a century and it's actually, for a popular conception, remarkable accurate.

The central strength of the Mongol Empire was that horseman; hardy and rapid moving, tactically flexible, well-disciplined, and ferociously violent. But he was not the only weapon in the Mongol arsenal in 1274.

By 1274 the waves of light horse-archers were backed up by a mailed fist of heavy armored mounted lancers; the equivalent of the Byzantine cataphract cavalry or the Ottoman or Mamluk heavy horse; armored men on armored horses armed with lances as their primary weapon that charged into close combat. The ratio of light to heavy cavalry in the Mongol armies of the 13th Century seems to have been roughly 3:2.
Our only source for the number and composition of the Yuan expeditionary force is the Yuan Shi, that gives the Mongol and Chinese numbers as 15,000. We don't have a better breakdown that that, but given that the conquest of China was fairly recent and the Northern Song troops fairly newly incorporated into the new dynasty I suspect that most of the "Mongol and Chinese" troops were, in fact, Mongol.

Another 1,600 of the expedition are listed as Korean. Korea was even more recent a conquest than China, and the reliability of Korean grunts would likely have been pretty low. I suspect that some of the Koreans listed were crew for the some 900 ships that conveyed the invasion force from the embarkation ports to the Japanese shore as well as infantrymen.

Here's the thing about this force, though. All the sources we have for this battle suggest - or show - that many of the Mongol forces 1) fought on foot and 2) in compact formations.

This doesn't sound like the sort of swirling mobile tactics the Mongol horse archers were known for; it sounds a lot more like the kind of infantry tactics used in Song Dynasty China as well as in Goryeo Korea. This tends to change our ideas of this force. Perhaps the conquered peoples - Chinese and Korean - provided more fighting soldiers than they otherwise would have.

Or...maybe the Mongols left their ponies at home.

That's my thought. Without modern steel vessels and specialized horse-transport ships its difficult for us, in our mechanized society, to conceive of the difficulty for a preindustrial society of transporting horses by sea.

Horses don't like to stand on an uneven surface. Unless they've been rigorously trained to do it they typically don't go up and down things like ramps willingly, and they don't like to jump up or down onto a wooden deck from a dock or quay, or over railings into the water.

They tend to be exceptionally poor sailors, nervous in the confinement of a small stall and a wooden deck overhead, and spooking at the sudden movement of the ship or the strange noises of wind and wave. When frightened they will typically attempt to run and, if restrained, will fight to escape, kicking, rearing, and plunging, and a terrified thousand-pound animal can do a tremendous amount of damage to a wooden ship.

Frankly, I have serious doubts about how many horses the invasion force brought along. I suspect that a lot of the Mongol troops were dismounted for this expedition. That wasn't an automatic deal-breaker as it might have been with some other nomadic armies; the Mongols were known for their siegecraft, very much a footsoldier sort of task, and they had considerable experience with infantry, if only to attack them. So while I have no doubt that some of the Mongol soldiers brought their mounts along with them I strongly doubt that this number was large or significant as a tactical factor in the engagement.

So, roughly 16,500 to perhaps about 20,000 all arms. Probably somewhere between several hundred to several thousand mixed light missile and heavy melee cavalry with the remainder a varied mix of light missile infantry and heavy melee infantry. The commanders are virtual cyphers; we know some of their names from the Yuan Shi: Chinese general Liu Fuxiang, Korean officer Kim Pang-gyong, and Mongol officers Hu-tun and Hong Ta-gu...but beyond the mere names we have no real idea who these men were and what their abilities were. Turnbull (2010) dismisses them with the observation that "(t)he Khan's leading generals were fully engaged in the main struggle against the Song..." so we are left to conclude that both the troops and the leaders of the 1274 expedition were likely less than the best that the Yuan Dynasty could field.

The Sources: Three. Or very nearly.

I'm not kidding. As far as I can find out there are only three major sources of information on the Battle of Bun'ei; one from China and two Japanese. All three suffer from the usual failings of medieval chronicles; excessive reliance on hearsay and anecdote, relative innumeracy, and the disconnect between the men who fought the fight and the men who wrote about it. No reports from the commanders to their rulers, no casualty returns, logistical tallies, orders of battle, or morning reports; none of the sort of technical and tactical records we expect from modern military forces.

Add on the difficulty for a Western reader to access sources written in Japanese as well as a Chinese work (the Yuan Shi) that was compiled by Chinese scholars reading Mongolian records.

From the Japanese side there are also a small collection of minor sources such as the accounts of the then-controversial Buddhist monk 日蓮Nichiren, samurai family histories, and surviving official records of the Kamakura bafuku.

You can imagine the difficulties.

From the Mongol side the only real source is a chronicle of the Yuan Dynasty called the 元史, Yuan Shi, or History of Yuan, a work with a plethora of problems.

First of all, despite its title it was not written by a Mongol, or during the Yuan Dynasty. So far as we can tell it was begun about two years after the fall of the Yuan and the accession of the first emperor of the succeeding Ming Dynasty. Talk about history being "written by the victor"...the supposed eyewitness account of the Mongol rule of China was written by the Chinese who kicked the Mongols out.

Adding to the obvious bias on the part of the authors was the haste with which the Yuan Shi was compiled. The entire 200-odd chapter compilation took less than a year to finish. The Wiki entry says:
"The History of Yuan has been criticized by imperial Chinese scholars for its lack of quality and numerous errors, attributed to the haste with which it was compiled. The Qing-era historian and linguist Qian Daxin commented that of the official histories, none was more quickly completed - or worse in quality - than that of the Yuan dynasty. Wang Huizu, another Qing-era scholar, compiled a work on the history pointing out more than 3,700 factual and textual errors in the text, including duplicated biographies for important figures such as Subutai, as well as inconsistent transliterations of the same name - Phagspa, for example, was transliterated in three different ways."
If that wasn't trouble enough the actual manuscript is extremely rare: only two copies are known to exist today, both in the Mongolian National Library and extremely difficult to access. Try as I might I could find no image of the original text on the Internet. So it's difficult to assess how accurate the original history of the expedition was, and what, if any, inaccuracies crept in in the seven centuries since its creation.

The primary Japanese source is a piece of official propaganda from the Hachiman shrine at Iwashimizu called the Hachiman Gudokun and is principally concerned with convincing the bafuku that the prayers offered to Hachiman were the main reason the invaders were licked. I am not entirely sure if there exists an English translation of the full text, which though composed in the early 14th Century is known only from a manuscript copy from the Late 15th.

Additional contemporary Japanese sources are said to exist in family records as well as in the Imperial archives as well as in the libraries of temples and monasteries.

Perhaps the must controversial, confusing, and delightful record of the events of Bun'ei 11 is a collection of images with explanatory text - a sort of military historical strip-cartoon called the 蒙古襲来絵詞, Moko Shurai Ekotoba, the "Illustrated Account of the Mongol Invasion" or, more commonly, the "Mongol Invasion Scrolls".

This work seems to have been commissioned in the late 13th Century - the year 1293 is cited on the second section - by a guy named 竹崎 季長, Takezaki Suenaga, a gokenin samurai from Higo Province.

This joker Takezaki seems to have either been one of history's biggest shameless douchebags or a man with absolutely no filter between his mind and his mouth. His conduct on the battlefield is certainly fierce - to the point of lunacy, at time - but is characterized by a ridiculous amount boneheaded tactical stupidity, chicanery, and disobeying the orders of his feudal masters. Keep in mind that the story recounted is his version of the events; as Turnbull (2010) puts it: "...it would not have been surprising to have read the the Mongol Invasion Scrolls were compiled by his commanding officer so that Suenaga could be have been adequately disciplined."

In common with other medieval manuscripts the Scrolls have had a tough life over the ensuing seven centuries. Campi (2002) recounts this:
"The scrolls were kept at the Kaito shrine until seized in the 1360s by the Nawa and placed in the Aso shrine. The work ha(d) suffered extensive water damage and the glue that held the pages together dissolved. The Suenaga scrolls were rediscovered late in the eighteenth century, but there (wa)s no clear order for the images and passages.

In 1793 the scrolls were dispatched to Edo [Tokyo] and copied into the documents that exist today. However, the work was only divided into two scrolls in 1797, so there is some confusion as to which invasion story some illustrations belong. The scrolls were returned to Higo province in 1825 until presented to the Japanese Meiji emperor in 1890. Only
in 1989 were the scrolls bestowed to the nation and placed in the Museum of the Imperial Collections (Sannomaru Shozokan)"
Thomas Conlan has produced a worthwhile little study of the Invasion Scrolls, In Little Need of Divine Intervention (Conlan, 2001). I enjoyed the work, the reproductions of the Scrolls are invaluable, but it is not without its critics, and his conclusion - that the Japanese defeated the Yuan invasions based on military superiority alone and that the famous kamikaze was more myth than fact - seems to me poorly supported.

A number of worthwhile secondary works have been produced on the Invasions; all undoubtedly suffer from the same paucity of primary sources as does this one. In preparation of this post I used the Conlan book as well as the 2010 Stephen Turnbull The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281 published by Osprey and found both as useful as could be.

I encountered a scattering of worthwhile resources on the Internet that cover the Mongol invasions in general. Bowdoin College has a lovely little site that presents Takezaki's Invasion Scrolls, providing nice images of parts of the manuscript as well as some useful insight into the difficulty in reassembling the original from the various versions and revisions extant.

The Wiki entry appears to be acceptable for its setting though with some peculiar assertions. For example, it cites the 日本王代一覧, Nihon ōdai ichiran, or Table of Rulers of Japan as the source for the Japanese belief that the invasion was defeated because the invasion force ran out of arrows - a frankly unbelievable assertion and one hard to credit the gokenin who were on Hakata beach as seriously proposing - without mentioning that the Table of Rulers was written in the late 17th Century. While useful as a general introduction it contains little of real military value.

Although not really pertinent to the events of 1274 the Archaeology website has a good little article on the modern investigation into the wrecks of the great storm of 1281. Another good naval archaeological site is maintained by one Ramdall Sasaki; the pictures alone are well worth investigating.

That's pretty much it. As with the sources, little has been published on the Internet about this engagement. I figure I might as well be the first.

The Campaign: One good first question to ask would be; what the fuck did Kublai Khan want with Japan, anyway?

No kidding, really; Kublai, what the fuck, man? Your Mongol Empire was as continental a polity as ever was, run and ruled by a bunch of steppe-nomads and hacked out of Eurasia by a bunch of guys on horses with bows. You needed a navy and an island outpost like a duck needs nuclear weapons, and trying to get them got a lot of your good troops killed. What was the attraction?

Certainly one reason may well have been what we'd call today "national security". Once the Song Dynasty was overthrown the Yuan controlled all of the mainland from Korea to Vietnam; the only real military threat to the east was Japan. While the Japanese showed little interest in military conquest on the mainland they were really the only state that might, and as we here in the United States know only too well it takes little more than an ambitious ruler to insist that a smoking gun may become a mushroom cloud at any moment and decide to invade to prevent that fantasy of danger.

Another might simply have been momentum; the Mongol armies had conquered all before them to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Why stop there? Certainly there must have been a sort of "manifest destiny" faction at the Yuan Court that believed that it was just natural for Mongol rule to extend as far as there were people to rule, Japanese included.

Turnbull (2010) suggests that Japan's wealth was a reason. He cites Marco Polo as claiming that the Imperial Palace was paved with gold and that these riches were part of Kublai Khan's motivation. This, given the incredible wealth for the taking in Song China, seems frankly unbelievable.

One more plausible reason is that Japan had both the capability to intervene on the side of the Southern Song (in 1274, at least) as well as military power that would be helpful in defeating the Song if properly re-directed. So by taking control of Japan the Khan would further his greater goal of the complete subjugation of China.

Whatever the reasons, Mongol pressure on Japan to join the Coalition of the Willing began as early as 1266 and, as we've discussed, accelerated in the years between 1269 and 1272. The messages were couched in the usual diplomatic flannel but the steel beneath the niceties was tangible. The message from 1269 concludes with the admonition: "...if we should not establish friendly relations between us...(w)ho would care to appeal to arms?"

These messages, along with warnings of Mongol preparations from the Korean government-in-exile (to the island of Ganghwa in the Han River delta) until the final conquest of Korea, were dealt with not by the Emperor - who was a figurehead and had been since the Genpei War of the 12th Century - but by one of the samurai military elite that had taken power. In 1274 this was not even the ostensible military ruler, the shogun - a mook by the name of 惟康親王, Prince Koreyasu - but his 執権, shikken (regent), a guy named 北条 時宗, Hōjō Tokimune. Tokimune, the regent for the regent, mobilized the gokenin of Kyūshū some time after the threatening messages in the late 1260s or early 1270s, but the gokenin of southern Honshu only late in 1274.
Meanwhile the Mongol invasion fleet and its troops sailed from harbors along the south coast of Korea on 2 NOV 1274 (the 3rd day of the 10th lunar month) to begin the operation. Two days later the fleet was sighted off the island of Tsushima.

The fight for Tsushima was brief, and brutal. A couple of hundred defenders - 80 mounted samurai and their footsoldiers - met about 1,000 Mongol, Chinese, and Korean troops on the beach near the town of Sasuura. The fighting was hard, and the attackers are said to have been badly mishandled, but the entire Japanese force was butchered.

The invasion force spent about a week enjoying some casual plunder, murder, rape, and the other traditional prerogatives of the victor before sailing on 13 NOV to arrive at the small island of Iki the same afternoon.

Same shit, different day; Mongols and their Chinese and Korean troops pile ashore, Japanese kill as many as possible before being overrun. The usual atrocities ensue. By nightfall the next day the invasion force lands on the Matsuura peninsula and do their usual killing and burning before re-embarking and sailing for the larger settlements around Hakata Bay, which they reached some time on 19 NOV.
The Engagement: As with the other aspects of Bun'ei 11, what we don't know about the actual fighting is extensive. What we do know is the outline of the Mongol and Japanese movements and some tactical details of the fighting.

We know that the Mongol commander landed a detachment within Hakata Bay but west of the main landing site in what is now Imazu Bay, near the modern towns of Imajuku and Shimoyamato. We don't know how large this force was or how it was organized, except that at least some of this force may have been mounted. The Hachiman Gudokun says: "The Mongols disembarked from their ships, mounted their horses, raised their banners and began the attack." However, it seems that another portion of the Mongol force consisted of massed infantry. The Hachiman continues: "Halberds and long-shafted weapons were carried with no empty space between them..."

We can assume that the Japanese commander - or whoever was in command of the western elements of the Japanese force - sent out a portion of his command to intercept this Mongol attack as it marched eastwards. Whatever this force was and whatever it did the mission was either unsuccessful or the commander's intent was a purely delaying action, because the western Mongol force attacked successfully eastwards to meet the main landing at the southeastern arc of Hakata Bay near the modern Port of Hakata.

At this point both of the combatants began to notice the real difference in the way the two sides fought.

The Mongols (and their Chinese and Korean subject troops) fought as units under the command and control of their officers. The Yuan Shi says: "...(the Mongol) generals gave command by beating drums and the troops advanced or retreated according to the beat of the drums". The Hachiman notices the same thing: "The commander-in-chief of their army took up a position on high ground, and when they had to pull back he beat the drum of retreat. When they were going to advance he struck the attack gong."

The Japanese gokenin, on the other hand, were still thinking largely of personal glory. One of the samurai opened the main engagement in traditional Japanese warrior fashion by firing a signalling arrow - an arrow tipped with some sort of whistle - over the Mongol formation. This was to alert the kami that men were going to do great deeds. The invasion force - probably worried that this joker was going to skewer someone - laughed their asses off when the whistler looped overhead.

The chronicles note that the gulf between the two sides was technical as well as tactical. The Mongol force had adopted Chinese artillery; what the Chinese supposedly called "chien tienli" and the Japanese "tetsuhau".

These were some sort of rocket with a warhead made of ceramic or cast iron filled with black powder, a sort of 13th Century Congreve Rocket. The effects of these early RAP-rounds seems to have been as much psychological as physical; the Hachiman says that between the explosions, the drums, and the gongs the Japanese horses were utterly bugnuts and almost uncontrollable. All the accounts agree that the samurai tried their usual ride-around-and-shoot style and managed to kill their share but were usually unable to kill enough people - to "attrit", in the term soldiers prefer to "butcher", the Mongol force - enough to disorder their units and alter their movements.

We don't know exactly what happened, but my guess is that the Mongol bowmen would drive off the samurai cavalry to enable the melee infantry to move forward and then the blocks of spearmen would provide protection for the foot-archers as they forced the Japanese back from handstrokes. Without artillery, without an equivalent mass of infantry, and without either horse archers acting in groups or heavy cavalry capable of riding down footsoldiers (the samurai cavalry doesn't seem to have acted in mass, and individuals or small mounted groups trying to ride into infantry are dead once their movement stops; unable to use their greater mass and surrounded by more numerous enemies they will eventually be pulled down and killed) the Japanese really had no tactical "solution" to the advancing Mongol infantry units.

So between the mismatch of close-order infantry and armored missile cavalry, and the better tactical organization of the invaders, the defenders were pushed off the beach and down the Mikasa River to the southeast.

This was bad. The regional capital was just southeast of Hakata Bay at 太宰府市, Dazaifu-shi. Loss of the admin center at Dazaifu would have caused real problems for the defense of the island, and would have given the invaders a fortified place to spend the night.

As it was, the defenders seem to have managed to fall back on and hold what was called the ミズキ, Mizuki, or "water castle".

This thing wasn't really a castle but rather a rock curtain wall constructed across the valley of the Mikasa River.

This fortification is described as "...a fortress on a mound, 1.2km long and 14m high, surrounded by a bulwark. It had a moat (on the northwest side) with a width of 60 meters and a depth of 4 meters and was filled with water..."

The Japanese defenders were still holding this fortification as night began to fall. According to the Hachiman at this point Shoni Kagesuke also seriously wounded one of the Mongol leaders, Liu Fuxiang.

At that point the invasion force withdrew to their ships.

I mean, so far the fighting had been hard and the invaders taken some - perhaps significant - casualties. But they were beating the Japanese, had pushed them off the beach and several miles up the Mikasa to the Water Castle. It would seem to me as a simple cannon-cocker that there was no real reason to assume that the next day would change things assuming the two sides remained roughly equal.

So what was it? Were the invasion force commanders unwilling to spend the night on a largely unknown hostile shore? Had the resistance of the Japanese been fierce enough - and both sides agree that it was fierce, even if more disorganized than it should have been - to convince the Mongol leaders to sod this for a game of soldiers? Were these leaders also worried that the Japanese might be gathering troops (a not unreasonable suspicion) and that the next day they might be facing not 2.5:1 or 2:1 odds but more like 1:1, or even worse?

Or was the intent all along to just see what would happen on a single day of fighting? Was this nothing more than a big raid, a vast reconnaissance-in-force, designed to gather whatever information about the defenders and defenses of the northern Kyūshū coast could be had in a day?

The Yuan Shi presents a Ming scholar's reconstruction of the council of war that took place in the Mongol CP as night fell on 19 NOV.:
"Kim Pang-gyong remonstrated with Hu-tun and Hong ta-gu, saying, "Our forces are small in number, it is true, but that are already on the emeny's land. They are battle-minded now. Let us therefore fight it out." Hu-tun replied, saying, "They say if one puts up a strong fight with a small force, one ends up being captured by the large force. To drive on fatigued troops into the enemy ground is not safe tactics. It is better to draw back our forces."
Whatever the reason, the invasion force pulled back, not just to the beach but to their ships.

Presumably the Japanese defenders set into the sort of restless night typical for soldiers in close quarters with an armed enemy; the guys who can sleep snoring and twitching and thrashing in the nightmares that follow a day of fighting, many of the other trying to just lie down and rest bodies exhausted from the hard physical work of hand-to-hand combat and the mental strain of spending a full day in the immediate presence of death and grievous wounds.
And, of course, all the other sorts of military bullshit that keeps the joes from sleeping; the asshole from HQ who trips over you while shouting for some guy you know is not in your unit, the nosy NCO looking for some idle bodies for a detail, and the random noise and confusion of any outfit on the first night in the field.

Then there would have been the pre-dawn stand-to, as the dirty, tired, sleepy, probably hungry, probably nervous (and some, the braver, excited) Japanese troops were shaken awake to fall into their positions. Undoubtedly there was a mutter of conversation ranging from pure nervous chatter and bad jokes to some variation of "Wonder what that fuckin' genius (insert shifty offier's name here) has planned for us today?" to some variation of "For what we are about to receive may the kami make us truly thankful." Hands would have tightened around hilts and shafts, or adjusted and re-adjusted bowstrings and armor.

But when the first sunlight of 20 NOV showed Hakata Bay the invasion fleet was gone.
Again, we don't really know why.

Again, possibly this was a planned withdrawal. Possibly this was a tactical decision; the ground troops may have been so badly mishandled the day before that the invasion commanders had decided that a full withdrawal was their only real choice.

Possibly the plan was to have re-landed on 20 NOV but the weather had turned during the night; the Yuan Shi says: "...that night there was a great storm and our fighting craft were dashed against the rocks and destroyed in great numbers." although the problem with this is that some of the Japanese sources - especially the Hachiman that never fails to mention any sort of divine intervention - make no mention of any storm along the Japanese coast and says that the local people we surprised to find the invaders gone except for a single ship that had run aground. Certainly November is not typical typhoon season, and even normal winter storms tend to come from the west or northwest, suggesting that a big winter storm would have driven the invasion fleet ashore rather than drive it off to the north or west. However, an imperial court diary uses the term "a contrary wind" and notes that this contrary wind "left some on land".

This storm may have struck after the invasion commanders chose to withdraw for tactical reasons. The force is reported to have lost heavily (Turnbull (2010) cites a "contemporary record" as claiming that this number was 13,500 and one-third of the invasion force, which seems extreme given what we think was the initial strength of the invasion) though whether these losses were during the engagement or the voyage to and from the islands is impossible to determine.

Regardless of the why, the danger to the Japanese home islands was over. For now.

The Outcome: Japanese tactical victory
The Impact: Well, we know that the "impact" in strategic terms was minimal. The Mongols returned in August of 1281 with an even larger force. This force was not just defeated but destroyed, supposedly largely by the kamikaze, the typhoon that has since been famous as the "divine wind" that showed the gods were on the side of the Japanese.

I'd like to suggest, though, that the events of Bun'ei 11 had several long-term effects - beginning in 1281 but continuing down through the centuries.

First, the bakufu reorganized the defenses of Kyūshū, including building a series of defensive walls along the north shore of the island so as to provide tactical strongpoints similar to the Mizuki, and raising additional gokenin from both Kyūshū and across the Home Islands.

And, second, the samurai had learned some of what worked and what didn't against a massed infantry force. All that feudal caprioling and promiscuous arrow dueling went by the board . The second invasion was met at the water's edge by massed bowfire backing armored infantry in fortified positions; unlike 1274, in 1281 the invasion force couldn't even manage to force a beachhead and had to return to their ships again that evening where the kamikaze could destroy them.

Perhaps the single most significant impact was, eventually, on the Japanese national character. The stories of the invasions of the 13th Century passed into lore and eventually legend. The legend as Japan as the 神国, shinkoku or land of the gods, the favored people and polity of Heaven.

I'll go ahead and say straight out; any people, or any nation, that is convinced that "God is on our side" is setting themselves up to make appalling political mistakes, whether you say it as "shinkoku" or "Gott mit uns" or "God Bless America". The Japanese conviction of divine sanction - born of the events of the 13th Century - that mere Japanese-ness was enough to ensure rightness and goodness led eventually to the horrors of Nanjing, Unit 731, and Death Railway.

Touchline Tattles: As you can imagine, the only piece of entertainment to emerge from the events of the Mongol invasions comes from our pal Takezaki Suenaga, the Bad Samurai of Higo.

He managed to get recognition for doing not-much in 1274. In 1281 he was back at it, still trying to win fame and fortune by lopping Mongol heads. But things didn't work out all that well for him, again.

After the repulse of the initial landings the fighting was transferred to the bay itself, where samurai swarmed the invasion fleet in small boats. But our boy Takezaki hadn't bothered to get himself a boat, and he quickly found that getting a ticket to the fighting wasn't easy. Turnbull (2010) describes Takezaki's adventures:
"Time and again Suenaga tried to negotiate for a place while successive boats...set off without him...when he spotted a boat bearing the flag of Adachi Yasumori. Suenaga commandeered a messenger boat to row him out...and proclaimed that he had been sent by the shugo and had been ordered to get on the next available boat. No one on board believed this falsehood...so (when) Suenaga jumped on to Adachi's boat...several men tried to throw him back."
Adachi finally orders Takezaki the hell of his boat and our hero reluctantly retreats to his rowboat.

But that's not the end for our enterprising samurai. He sees another boat and has his oarsman row like Hell to catch it, whereupon he "...first claimed that he was on a secret mission from the shugo, hence his solitary role, and then that he was, in fact, the deputy shugo. The boat in question was already full but the commander, who was eager to get into battle, allowed him to clamber on board."

So full, in fact, that Takezaki had to leave not just his footsoldiers behind but his helmet, as well. Oh, well; our boy wasn't going to let the lack of a brain bucket keep him out of the slaughter - he strapped a couple of shinguards around his head!

On the way to the hackfest Takezuki proceeds to regale his probably-irritated companions about his experience fighting Mongols, which I'm sure they all enjoyed - nothing is as entertaining for a GI as listening to a someone else's war story.

But the man could at least back up his talk; here he is shortening a Mongol by a head - notice his field-expedient shinguard-helmet coming loose...

We don't know how effective Takezaki's cartoon tale of heroism was at securing him the recognition he clearly felt he clearly deserved; so far as I know there is no record of whether or how well he was rewarded for his somewhat ridiculous adventures at Hakata Bay.

But give the boy credit for this - it he didn't get his props wasn't his fault. Suenaga was livin' the Code of Bushi StreeT: Get Riches and Glory Or Die Tryin'.