Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Thinker

Our Wild, Wild Universe – Part Two

I don’t often write about the universe. It’s been ten years since I wrote about the physicist Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Universe. It seems that I cannot get enough of the story, at least when it can be brought down to the terms a layman like me can understand. Some months back Cosmos returned to television, a sort of sequel to the series of the same name hosted by the late astronomer Carl Sagan broadcast on public TV in 1980. This series is hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and showed up, curiously enough, on the Fox Network, a network known more for its lowbrow entertainment than this nerdy stuff.

I’m catching up on the series now on Netflix. I find it compelling in a strange way, so compelling that I am putting aside other really compelling shows like House of Cards and Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts to give it precedence. It tickles my curiosity and sense of wonder. The more you explore what we know about the universe, the more wondrous it becomes. deGrasse Tyson does a great job of conveying the immensity and the wonder of our universe. The series is aided by wondrous CGI as well, the sort that was simply unavailable when Carl Sagan hosted the series (although for the time his CGI was quite sophisticated). The combination of CGI, storytelling and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s infectious way of story telling makes it a very compelling series.

It brings out the natural pantheist in me. Natural pantheism is sort of a religion that simply expresses reverence for our universe the way it is. As you finish episodes of this version of Cosmos, you should feel the pull of natural pantheism too. Most of us who are religious tend to appreciate the faiths that we have been brought up in, in part perhaps because its message is much simpler to grasp than the amazing immensity and complexity of the cosmos, to the extent that we can understand it. Traditional religions also tend to concentrate on people and our needs, aspirations and questions. They are human centric. Studying the cosmos as it is, is not human centric at all except of course that we are self-aware creatures. We also have developed a scientific method that allows us to continually gain in understanding of the cosmos and our part in it.

deGrasse Tyson does a great job of explaining how we came to understand how the universe actually works. This too is a compelling story. In it certain scientists like Newton, Faraday and Einstein become something like secular saints, because they each solve great mysteries. In the process they reveal not just what is, but how the master clock works and sometimes how we can work it to our advantage. It’s a story of great detective work spanning thousands of years.

The series is spawning new thoughts within me, particularly in the area of evolution. It is clear to me that evolution does not exist merely here on Earth, but across the universe as well. The universe evolves too, creating more and more complex elements that make life possible. Is there life in the universe, aside from our planet, of course? Now the answer seems simple: yes. Life doubtless exists elsewhere, in many forms. In fact it probably permeates our galaxy and much of the evolved universe. This is because all the building blocks are there, particularly carbon and heat, which is hardly unique to the Earth. In addition, as deGrasse Tyson points out in Episode 11, it is probable that microbial life travels between planets and between solar systems, seeding life itself across the galaxy and the universe. It just happens so slowly and over so many millions of years it is hard for us to see.

To me it gets much simpler. The universe itself is a living creature. The universe does not necessarily think or breathe, attributes that we associate with life but at least to our understanding is something done very quickly. But it is clearly evolving and becoming more complex with time. It is unfolding and through nuclear processes and gravity it is creating the complex, like carbon molecules, from the simple: the collapse of hydrogen gases by gravity into stars and their subsequent explosion. And like all living things, the universe seems destined to die. Like our body though it does not all die at once. It will take billions of years to die as the forces of the big bang move objects further and further from each other. The universe will catch a bad case of pneumonia and then pass on. With the big bang so powerful that no contraction of the universe seems possible, its energy will dwindle out, much like a firework. Whatever happens after that takes us to realms beyond the known laws of physics.

So yes, the universe is alive and it is also a vast system. Systems by nature are complex entities, and the universe is complex almost beyond our fathoming. Systems imply rules and order and some understanding, which if you believe in God suggests your belief is not unfounded. Systems also are comprised of many pieces that interrelate with one another. Our universe interrelates with itself. Forces like the nuclear forces and gravity are the means that enforce an interrelationship. It also means that everything is connected to everything else. We sometimes suffer the illusion that we are alone. We may feel lonely, but we are never alone. We are always intimately connected with everything else simply because we are all a part of everything else.

It is individuality that is an illusion, although as deGrasse Tyson points out not only are we part of a universe so immense that few of us can understand it, there is also a universe within ourselves. Within a breath of air that we inhale, there are more atoms inhaled than there are stars in the universe. If there is a miracle, it is that we have evolved to self-awareness. We have a pretty good idea how it all fits together now, and our part in it.

With life must come death. On the universal level, our life is like the lifespan of a bacterium on a bar of soap: very short indeed. By nature we cannot maintain such complexity for that long and even if we could the universe will shift in ways that would kill us. It’s no wonder then that universe seems cold, heartless and unfathomable. We are destined to die, and die very quickly on a universal time scale. However, we remain part of the fabric of something far more immense and alive: the universe itself.

We are a part of something immensely grand and complex indeed, with our part to play. We have the privilege, thanks to shows like Cosmos, to understand our what it is and our part in it. And that is awe-inspiring and for this agnostic a fitting and satisfying part to play.

 
The Thinker

Review: Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

Some books you cannot put down, some you plod through half heartedly, some you put down after a few pages and some you read for a while, put down for a long time, then strangely pick up again and actually finish. Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie fell into the last category for me.

This was in part because the book was a gift. My wife knows that I like histories, and as usual this came from a recommendation by one of her friends. I’ve plodded through all sorts of unlikely histories. I enjoy the occasional history about a famous woman, such as my review of a book on Queen Elizabeth I. Catherine the Great came along about a hundred and fifty years after Queen Elizabeth I. She ultimately does make for an interesting read through the pen of historian Massie. First you must plod through a whole lot of backstory, and I got stuck in the middle of it.

Catherine ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796, a remarkably long span of time for a monarch of her age. Her story is interesting because she was an unlikely monarch. To start with, she wasn’t even Russian. She was born in Prussia, now Germany, as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. She did have noble blood in her, but just barely. In many ways by today’s standards her upbringing was quite middle class. Her second cousin was Peter III, a man she widely detested but was convinced to marry. This was because Prussian Emperor Frederick II needed a more lasting alliance, of the biological kind, between Prussian and Russia. Peter was distantly related to Empress Elizabeth and Catherine to Frederick II. Her conniving aunt helped arrange the marriage.

Catherine at least knew to make the most of opportunities. Married to Peter there was at least the prospect that she would become an empress. If not, living a life in a Russian court beat being married to some minor nobleman back in Prussia. She and Peter, who she barely knew, moved to Russia at Empress Elizabeth’s urging and her aunt’s insistence. Empress Elizabeth, the successor and daughter of Peter the Great, made sure they quickly were married. Her goal was grandchildren, but in that sense Peter III was a failure. He was completely clueless on how to consummate a marriage, and Catherine remained clueless as well. Moreover, Catherine detested Peter, who drank heavily, bore pox marks, hated Russia but admired the Prussian military. Upon reaching Russia, Catherine went right to work learning Russian, reading widely, and making friends at court. Catherine was not only unusually intelligent but she was socially gifted as well, agile enough to keep out of the way of the domineering Empress Elizabeth, but clever enough to make the contacts and demonstrate a key grasp of affairs and to win admirers in Elizabeth’s court.

Nonetheless, her primary value was not intelligence but her breeding value. Both she and Peter eventually had to be taught by others how to make love. It’s unlikely that she and Peter actually ever had sex, but she produced an heir nonetheless, courtesy of one of the many lovers during her life.

Those who like a sexy historical romance will find plenty to enjoy in this biography. For once Catherine learned the art of love, she quickly mastered the art of lovemaking. Her royal status allowed her to be quite particular with her lovers. As empress, she had a steady stream of favorites. Her favorites were men who were basically her exclusive lovers. Screwing the empress was not necessarily as fun as it sounded since in addition to putting out like a stud, you basically served as her constant companion as well. Having lovers was by no means scandalous. She was hardly alone among European royalty. In fact, most of the monarchs, male or female, had a steady stream of favorites and consorts that amused them and provided bedroom delights. These lovers also produced children, children she bore and largely did not see.

What had me stop reading the book for many months were the many pages devoted to her husband Peter III. He was, to say it kindly, a most unusual man. Mostly he was a very annoying person: insensitive, thoughtless, ugly, persecuted and incurious but given his backstory and the cruel way he was raised, it was not surprising. You get to see him through Catherine’s eyes and the view is not pretty. Their life, such as it was together, is hard to read. When Empress Elizabeth finally died of a stroke, Peter III ascended to the throne, but only for about six months. He was so detested that his suspicious death after Catherine took over as monarch in a coup was likely from poison. His death was also completely understandable, as he seemed interested in surrendering Russia to the Prussia he felt at home in. Catherine at least knew how to govern as a Russian and work in the best interest of the state.

For her time, Catherine was amazingly progressive. She believed in monarchy but many things about Russian society appalled her, including the conditions of serfs, who were basically slaves. She tried quite hard to institute a constitutional government in Russia by calling together all classes of Russian society to draft such a document. It proved futile and certain things like the relationship between nobility and serfs proved institutionally impossible to change. In most other ways though she governed with amazing aptitude. Russia expanded its territory in wars against Prussia and Turkey. She did not believe in capital punishment, although one exception was made for a traitor. During her reign Russia became about as enlightened as the rest of Europe, a major feat. She opened hospitals in a country that had virtually none, staffed them, set up a system to take care of homeless mothers and orphans, and through trusted aids like Grigory Potemkin managed to turn large parts of Russia, which resembled the Wild West, into peaceful and prosperous territories. She even won Russia a warm water port on the Black Sea.

And yet she was a passionate woman, not just in bed, but also in temperament. She worked long hours, liked to hear differences of opinion and ruled with unusual enlightenment for her time. She wrote of her own foibles to intimates. She was also not infatuated with herself. This was probably due in part to her humble upbringing, and the way that it grounded her in real life.

Catherine turned out to be the last empress Russia would ever have. Many did not approve of Peter the Great’s decision that each monarch could choose their own successor. That is how his daughter Empress Elizabeth got the crown. The men who would follow her, including those who were assassinated like her son, would prove generally inept in a way she was not.

Readers can be forgiven if they skip over many of the chapters involving Catherine’s husband Peter III. If you like history though this is informative. This is my first exposure in any significant depth to Russian history. If the rest of Russian history is as interesting as Catherine’s life and her time as monarch, I’d gladly become a Russian history enthusiast. Moreover, if you are fascinated by examples of great women in power, it is hard to find a better example of a wise and beneficent ruler than Catherine the Great.

 
The Thinker

A week of preventable tragedies

Last week was a good week to stick your head in the ground. Unfortunately, we are not ostriches so we were left to endure two major tragedies instead: the Boston bombings and an explosion of a fertilizer factory in West, Texas. The former got disproportionate attention, but the latter actually caused more deaths.

Last Monday’s twin bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon murdered three people including a boy, left at least thirteen people with severed limbs, and more than 178 people were treated at local hospitals. It was arguably the first major case of terrorism within the United States since September 11, 2001. For some of us who were in or around the events of 9/11, these bombings evoked visceral reminders of that day. I was one of the people caught in Washington, D.C. that day. My way of coping last week was not to watch videos of this event, but otherwise the news was inescapable. The total deaths were really four if you include the MIT police officer Sean Collier, who was killed by gunfire from the bombing suspects, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev early Friday morning. Police killed Tamerlan, the elder brother on Friday morning. His brother Dzhokhar is now in hospitalized and in custody after a wild manhunt that shut down Boston and surrounding areas for much of Friday.

The visceral reaction to this incident was understandable, given that the Boston Marathon is a huge public event and perhaps the premier running event in the United States. In a sense it was an attack on all of us because it was so indiscriminate. The chaotic reporting of the event did not do credit to the media, social media or crowdsourcing. What was impressive was the effectiveness of law enforcement at city, state and the federal levels. Within three days of the event officials had identified two suspects from thousands of images in and around the event, and within four days one suspect was dead and the other was captured wounded in nearby Watertown after an extensive and scary manhunt that shut down the Boston area. Less noted by the press was what had not occurred in the twelve years in between these events. We know of some of the planned terrorist events that were thwarted by law enforcement over these years, and there are doubtless many more that we do not know about. This incident also demonstrated that when these events occur we can marshal the right resources to effectively manage and contain the event. We have also put in place an infrastructure that is generally effective at preventing most of these incidents. Our law enforcement community deserves applause from all Americans for their forceful and effective response to these tragic bombings. The citizens of Boston proved their resilience as well, by offering assistance to victims of the bombing and by keeping their cool while neighborhoods swarmed with SWAT teams.

Adding to the surreal nature of these events was the rejection by the U.S. senate of expanded background checks for gun purchasers last week. The legislation would not have stopped the bombings themselves, which were wrought by low-tech pressure cookers placed in backpacks. However, had the law been in effect it might have kept the Tsarnaev brothers from acquiring weapons in the first place. During the shootout with police Thursday night, the brothers outgunned the police, at least as far as the number of bullets exchanged. As the nearby Newtown incident demonstrated, it’s not hard to buy lots of bullets in this country. Both brothers were able to acquire guns that were used to kill Officer Collier. Authorities had previously interviewed the elder brother Tamerian because the Russian government believed him to have Chechen sympathies. If they appeared on any watch list, it did not appear to have kept them from getting guns.

While the news from Boston riveted our attention, arguably the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas near Waco on Wednesday was more newsworthy. While it’s unclear if the Boston bombings could have been prevented, the incident in West was eminently preventable and exacerbated by the Texan stubbornness not to allow zoning laws. Currently there are fourteen confirmed deaths and more than 160 people injured, mostly residents of this small Texan town. The town’s volunteer firefighters made up a plurality of those killed. They first successfully evacuated residents from a nearby nursing home before the plant exploded. OSHA had not inspected the plant itself since 1985. The Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to regulate fertilizer factories like this one but depends on these factories to self identify themselves never was notified. The destruction amounted to sixty to 80 homes completely destroyed, including a fifty-unit apartment building. Fifty to 75 additional homes were damaged. The only good thing about the explosion is that a fire started at the plant before it exploded, allowing responders to get the elderly out of a nearby nursing home and residents from neighboring homes before the explosion. It’s hard to imagine what the death toll had been had there been no warning.

This incident is a prime example of a wholly preventable accident. Even if the accident could not have been prevented, zoning laws could have kept industrial areas far away from residential areas, as is common in the vast majority of states except for states with something prickly up their rears, like Texas, who think “freedom” trumps basic public safety. The state of Texas is hostile to zoning regulations of any sort, so it’s perfectly okay to put major industrial plants like this fertilizer storage facility close to residential areas. An incident like this would normally have state legislatures scrambling to enact zoning laws to give jurisdictions authority to put public safety first. This is unlikely to happen, so something like this is bound to happen again.

In fact, it has. Texas, known for its refineries as well as many other hazardous industries, has a sorry history of large and preventable industrial accidents. In 1947, the Texas City Disaster killed at least 581 people and left only one person alive in the city’s fire department. The culprit was a ship loaded with ammonia nitrate, the same stuff that blew up in West Texas, except it was on a ship and 2,300 tons of the stuff went up at once, creating an explosion so powerful it had the force of a nuclear bomb. Also in Texas City in 2005 the Texas City Refinery exploded, killed 15 people and injured 170 others, making it roughly equivalent to this latest incident. If you feel somewhat ghoulish, check out this slide show of large Texan industrial accidents. They will have a familiar ring to them.

Since 9/11 we have done a lot as a country to reduce terrorist incidents like the Boston bombing. We obviously could do more, but we could clearly do a lot more to prevent large-scale industrial accidents such as occurred in West, Texas last week. Like terrorism, it requires putting the public good ahead of private profit and convenience. Let’s hope we learn some new lessons here at least, but like the NRA’s successful effort to get the Senate to turn down legislation for expanded background checks of gun purchasers supported by ninety percent of Americans, it seems that Texans will put stubbornness ahead of public safety once again.

 
The Thinker

Thoughts on the Civil War

Mission accomplished! I have now completed reading a comprehensive history of the Civil War, specifically Shelby Foote’s massive three-volume, 2,968 page, 1.2 million word tome, The Civil War: A Narrative. This war is now about a hundred and fifty years in our past. It remains a source of considerable interest, at least to a small subset of Americans into history, primarily because it happened right around us instead of in some distant land. As a percent of our population killed or injured in a war, the Civil War is unlikely to ever be exceeded unless there is a nuclear war. It touched pretty much everyone in our nation.

This post is not so much a review of these books, which are well written and meticulously researched by Foote, as it is to provide some of my thoughts and observations about the Civil War, particularly things that surprised me or are simply not well known to those with only a casual knowledge of the conflict.

One of the primary lessons I took away from these books is that effective leadership and passion can surmount seemingly impossible odds. At the beginning of the war, most Confederates who graduated from West Point realized that the South could not win the war. At best Confederates held out hope that the Union would simply tire of the conflict and sue for peace. This was not an unrealistic expectation, but Abraham Lincoln was not an ordinary president. He ineffectively but doggedly continued to pursue the war. The North had all the odds in their favor, principally the resources, money and population. However, the South had leadership and passion, and this combination of forces prolonged the war and gave hope to a weary South. The South succeeded for so long, particularly in the first half of the war, primarily because of the brilliant General Robert E. Lee of Virginia and the many talented commanders who worked under him such as General Stonewall Jackson. However, they were also blessed by a series of ineffectual Union generals, most of whom did not deserve their rank. The Confederate Army proved amazingly agile and determined. Time and again this gave them the upper hand, often with half the army that the Union had at its disposal. They were the Spartans of this war. They depended on wile and guts and mostly it worked.

I knew the Civil War was bloody but I did not appreciate just how bloody it was until I read these books. Its bloody battle at Gettysburg gets a disproportionate amount of the press, but there are other battles that were arguably equally as bloody and in many ways far more horrifying. Two of General Grant’s early battles here in Virginia stand out in my mind, battles I had not even known about but whose descriptions by Foote had me wondering if any battle preceding it had ever been so nasty and bloody. I speak of The Battle of the Wilderness followed by The Battle of Cold Harbor. In some way these battles were reckless. Grant chose to throw massive amounts of Union troops into these battles, at a huge cost and for no appreciable gain.

In any war there are battles that turned out to be game changers. In the western theater, it turned out to be the Battle of Shiloh that brought Grant into prominence and was the first step in eventually bringing the Mississippi River under Union control and thus Balkanizing the South. In the east, arguably it occurred in Georgia at The Battle of Chickamauga. It was in some ways the straw the broke the Confederacy’s back. The Battle of Gettysburg is notable not just for being the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, but also for being the first major victory by the Union Army, although it was arguably a pyrrhic victory.

One of the great strengths of Foote’s books is not so much the meticulous documentation of the battles themselves, but it allows the reader to get an intimate understanding of the men who were central to the whole conflict, and the various tensions that existed between them. There were plenty of third rate generals, mostly on the Union side. Arguably the Confederacy had some as well including Beauregard and Johnston. In some ways Johnston and the Union general McClellan were two peas from the same pod: hesitant to engage, quick to withdraw and ready to blame others for delays and when problems emerged. Both were very popular with their men, perhaps because of these deficiencies. There were also notable generals who arguably deserve more attention than they got, Union general Thomas, for instance, arguably the most effective general of the war in that he never really lost a battle, although he was often slow in starting them (such as the Battle of Nashville, the last major battle of the war.)

One thing that struck me was just how undeveloped the United States was at this period of history. Roads were bad and largely impassible during the wet season. They weren’t paved but some of them were planked, so armies often hoofed it over muddy fields, trailing wagons by the thousands and cannons across frequently difficult terrain. Bridges were constantly being blown up and rebuilt. Railroads were the primary means of quickly moving soldiers and supplies, which made them very strategic. An occupying army’s first job was often to tear up railroad track. When you don’t have much in the way of roads, cavalry becomes vital. Toward the end of the war Union general Sheridan showed that the Union could have an effective cavalry, but mostly this was an area wherein the South excelled, principally J.E.B. Stuart in Virginia and Bedford Forrest in the south.

As with any good history, you will learn little nuggets that are just fascinating but not widely known. There was a battle in New Mexico, and some Confederates briefly occupied a town in Vermont. The Confederate Army briefly occupied part of Washington D.C. One assault on a Confederate ship took place off the coast of Brazil, and was arguably illegal under international law. Another took place off the coast of England in international waters with most Britons cheering for the Confederates. Months after the Confederates has surrendered, a rouge Confederate naval ship was attacking whalers in the Bearing Sea.

Foote’s history overall is quite engaging, although some shopworn terms (“butternut soldiers”) get endlessly repeated. It would be hard not to do this with so many battles to document, and even with three thousand pages some of them get just a casual mention. Overall the Civil War was intense, bloody, and often reckless and much of it seems unbelievable. It seems crazy that so many people would fight in such a bloody, intense and disruptive war.

It is also a war that is still underway, just being battled now in generally nonviolent ways, such as in voter suppression or gerrymandering. The reluctance of many Americans to embrace any gun control at all does not have its roots so much in the Second Amendment, but in the Civil War, and the ability of a gun to foment insurrection against the established government. I hope I am wrong, but a new Civil War may be in our future.

 
The Thinker

Commemorating the Battle of Ox Hill – 150 years ago today in Chantilly, Virginia

One hundred fifty years ago this evening, nearly twelve hundred Confederate and Union soldiers were casualties of a battle that occurred literally down the street from me. The event was later named the Battle of Ox Hill by the Confederacy, and the Battle of Chantilly by the Union. While it killed two Union brigadier generals, at the time it was almost forgotten. Union general John Pope, his armies wounded and bloodied after losing badly after the second Battle of Manassas, was busy retreating with the remnants of his army. He was anxious to get his armies back inside the safety of Washington’s extensive fortifications.

Pope spent much of his time during the retreat trying to frantically protect his reputation by having his army’s withdrawal authorized by the Union’s commanding general Henry Halleck. Meanwhile, Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent General Stonewall Jackson and his army on a journey to the north around the Union’s flank, sending them down what was then Little River Turnpike but which is now appropriately renamed Lee Jackson Memorial Highway (U.S. Route 50). Their mission was to try to inflict more damage on the Union armies before they reached the safety of Washington. The result was the Battle of Ox Hill, which at the time was hardly noticed by General Pope. While he was awake enough to send out the cavalry to probe for flanking maneuvers by the Confederacy, and placed guns covering his retreat near the intersection of what is now Jermantown Road and Lee Jackson Memorial Highway, overall he paid little attention to what began as a skirmish to his north that quickly turned into the Battle of Ox Hill.

Battle of Ox Hill Site (September 1, 2012)

Battle of Ox Hill Site (September 1, 2012)

Twelve hundred casualties sounds like a lot, but in the context of the Civil War it was almost just a skirmish. Of those casualties, 221 soldiers died as a direct result of the battle, which occurred during a terrible thunderstorm that turned the battlefield into mud and ended inconclusively in the twilight. Some consider the battle a Union victory, but only in the sense that due to the quick actions of Brigadier Generals Stevens and subsequently Kearny (who did the strategic thinking in Pope’s absence) the Union army’s withdrawal continued apace, preventing a greater general disaster. Both Stevens and Kearny died in the battle, which probably is why the battle is memorialized at all today. Largely forgotten, of course, were the casualties. Most did not die quickly, but moaned all night in the woods and cornfields where the battle occurred, wet and covered in mud.

This was the only major Civil War battle to occur in Fairfax County, Virginia where I live. (There was a minor battle near the Dranesville Tavern in 1861.) The much bloodier battles on the plains near Manassas (Bull Run) occurred to the west in nearby Prince William County. Other Civil War actions certainly occurred in Fairfax County. Clara Barton helped dress the wounds of soldiers at the Fairfax courthouse near the battlefield. J.E.B. Stuart rode his Confederate cavalry through the county many times, including a probe a mile from where I live at the road near Frying Pan. These and more details I learned from reading David A. Welker’s book on the battle, the first detailed and comprehensive account of the battle, and published just ten years ago.

It took some prodding from local Civil War historical associations, but Fairfax County recognized the battle officially today with an event at a park at the site. Unfortunately, as I ranted way back in 2004, the four-acre park does not begin to cover the territory covered by the battle. In the 1980s and 1990s developers largely succeeded in turning the site into an area called Fair Lakes. During the Civil War soldiers were often unceremoniously buried where they died, if they were buried at all. Generals Stevens and Kearny were lucky only because they were officers, so their bodies were returned under flags of truce. During development at the site, bulldozers doubtless anonymously reburied the skeletons of Civil War soldiers under more layers of earth, forever to remain forgotten or anonymous.

It’s not much, but since I last visited in 2004, the 4.3-acre site on Monument Drive at least has been improved. There are new paths, a formal entrance along West Ox Road with a prominent sign, and a bit more parking. Most delightfully of all, the park authority took the time to put in a cornfield and fence mirroring, at least for a small portion of the battlefield the look of the field on the day of the battle. I listened to local politicians speak of the battle, watched a couple of handfuls of re-enactors drill and shoot from muskets and rifles, and spoke with local Civil War buffs. The crowd was modest, two hundred visitors at most while I was there, but respectably sized. Most of my fellow citizens of Fairfax County were happy to tune out the event, which got little press coverage, and perhaps add to the relative ignominy of the battle.

Stevens and Kearny Memorials

Stevens and Kearny Memorials

The site with the stone markers commemorating the deaths of Generals Stevens and Kearny at least has been spiffed up. There are signs for promised future monuments to Confederate and Union armies that participated in the battle. Mostly we can only rely on old photographs to get a sense of that battlefield one hundred and fifty years ago. The last house on the site, the Ballard home, was demolished in the 1960s.

No hellacious thunderstorms are expected tonight. No armies will fight and no casualties will lie moaning in the woods. Time keeps passing sending history further back into the past to be at some point wholly forgotten. Tonight, in the many multi-family housing units (principally condominiums and apartments) around the site families will cook meals, put children to bed and watch movies on Netflix virtually unaware of the historical significance of the day.

At least a couple hundred of us though came together at the park and remembered one more battle in a long and bloody Civil War, and honor the history literally under our feet.

Update 9/5/2012. Fairfax County, Virginia produced the following short video on the event.

 
The Thinker

The Civil War is not over

I haven’t been posting book reviews lately because I’ve been focusing on The Civil War. I’m slogging through the last volume of Shelby Foote’s history of The Civil War and with luck I’ll finish it in a month or two. I read it a few pages at a time in the evenings shortly before turning off the light next to my bed.

The whole Civil War is fascinating, appalling, complicated, and messy and much of it was poorly executed. Everyone agrees though that The Civil War reached its ghoulish zenith in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in early July 1863. The town of course is infamous for the bloodiest battle of The Civil War fought in there from July 1-3, 1863. There were over 46,000 casualties and nearly 8,000 soldiers killed in the battle. It was a rare union victory at a time when one was needed, and one of the few battles ever lost by Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

My wife and I toured the battlefield today, about a ninety minute drive from our home. It was not my first visit, having toured it briefly some thirty years earlier. Today we paid Gettysburg a proper visit. The battle may have been horrendous, but at least the National Park Service can say with pride that tourists visiting the battlefield will have a first class experience. Unlike some battlefields, this one has been meticulously preserved. It is not hard at all to imagine what the battle was like. While certain places like the peach orchard are gone, the terrain is still intact and largely undeveloped. Visitors like us can take a driving tour of the battlefield where there are ample opportunities to park the car and look out over the battlefield from various Confederate and Union positions. The only problem getting good views of the battlefield were due to the thousands of monuments on the grounds to various battalions, regiments and soldiers who participated in the battle. The visitor center offers a first class experience for tourists, with a twenty minute film about the battle, followed by a presentation of the huge cyclorama made in the late 19th century by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, and an extensive museum about the battle, its origins and its aftermath. Touring Gettysburg turns out to be a full day experience. It should be hard for anyone but whiny children not to be moved and a bit awed by the experience. There were ample park rangers and people in period costumes to help cement the experience as well. The theater, cyclorama and museum do not come free and cost about $18 a ticket, but it is money very well spent. The tour of the battlefield is free unless you take a chartered bus tour. Most people do it with their cars, but there were some bicyclists and even some people touring the battlefield in Segways. Blue skies and hot but dry air made visiting the park tolerable and even pleasant when there was a breeze.

While Lincoln preserved the Union and freed the slaves, I left Gettysburg realizing that we are still waging The Civil War. We fight about largely the same issues. Back then it was North vs. South, slavery vs. freedom and state rights vs. federal rights. Today it is Red State vs. Blue State. The issues today are not that much different than they were in 1863. Some people, mostly in red states, believe they should have more power than other people by virtue of their place in society, money in the bank, and yes, sadly, based on being white and male and will do their damnedest to make it happen. One of them, Paul Ryan, was picked today as Mitt Romney’s running mate. They have used the last 150 years to erode the gains that were cemented in the 13th and 14th amendment. It came early in the guise of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. Today it comes in the erosion of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision and through blatantly discriminatory voter disenfranchisement laws, such as those in Ohio which gives red counties extended voting hours but prohibits them in many blue counties. See it also at work through gerrymandering of legislative and state districts.

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought, in part, to provide a new birth of freedom for Americans, at least according to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But freedom remains unequal and new freedoms are often acquired only by tooth and nail. Sometimes we get them through fiat, such as when the Supreme Court invalidated state sodomy laws. Most of the time they are granted begrudgingly and haltingly, as with gay marriage. So many people who talk the line on freedom want to grant it only to people a lot like them.

When does this game end? Many of us hoped it ended at Gettysburg, or at least at the conclusion of The Civil War. In reality, it never ends because so many people simply don’t want others unlike us to have the freedoms they enjoy. The privileged vs. the non-privileged must seem to them a natural order, and freedom seems unnatural.  At least for the moment, the battle is fought through largely democratic means instead of through horrendous acts of violence that we tuned into today at Gettysburg.

It is a long struggle, but the bloody battle in Gettysburg nearly 150 years ago was sadly just one small step towards true freedom for all.

Next up on our vacation: Philadelphia, where our nation’s new birth of freedom began.

 
The Thinker

Anti-government morons

It’s come to this: the anti-government morons are decrying “big government” using the Internet, which would not exist without big government.

Granted, not everyone knows or cares about the history of the Internet. Rest assured it was not spawned as an invention of private industry, or manufactured in someone’s basement. That was sort of tried in the 1980s and failed. Yes, the indispensable Internet that if you are like me you are virtually addicted to (and which also keeps me employed) is a product of the systematic application of your tax dollars chasing what any sound financial analyst back in the 1960s would have called a wild goose chase. As an investment of tax dollars its return is incalculable, but it has connected us as never before, made getting information incredibly simple, and has even help foment revolution in countries like Egypt. It will probably be seen in retrospect as the most brilliant use of government tax money ever and a key enabler of democracy across the globe.

Anyone remember Compuserve? Or AOL? They were private Internet-like networks for subscribers only back in the 1980s and 1990s. Compuserve was bought out by AOL in 2003 and added to their list of “hot” acquisitions like Netscape (cough cough). AOL is no longer in the business of dishing out content only to paid subscribers and sees itself as a “digital media company”. Content equals money so they are eager to get anyone on the Internet to look at their sites, not just subscribers. In part they do that by not associating their sites with aol.com, which is unsexy, and build sites like this one. AOL still frequently loses money and every six months or so it seems to undergo reorganization.

The Internet you enjoy today is a basically a product of the Department of Defense. Back in the 1960s, the Defense Department needed a digital way to connect the department with research arms at educational institutions. It threw research money at the problem through its Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which takes on great, hard to fulfill quests. Working with a company called BBN under a government contract, the first router was manufactured. It provided a common means to move data electronically over a network through this weird idea of packets. Being able to send packets of data reliably between places on the network in turn spawned the first email systems that also went over its network. In the early 1990s, Tim Berners Lee at a multi-national research institution in Switzerland (which most recently found the God Particle) thought email was too cumbersome for his tastes, and created Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which became the web. It was government that created the Internet and arguably it could only have happened because of government. Private industry was not interested in some decades-long research project to build an open network that they might not control. Where was the profit in that?

Arguably the Internet could not have happened without the space program. Huge amounts of government research money were thrown at developing electronic computers, needing to be ever smaller and faster, to facilitate the needs of the space program. The space program also developed a whole host of other valuable products we use today and don’t think about, like Teflon, byproducts of government funded research that were turned over to the commercial sector.

Public investments created our interstate commerce system, a system we now take for granted but which made it so much easier to move both goods and people across the country. This investment stimulated commerce, built suburbs, and made it easier and faster to see our great country. Public investments created and sustained public schools and universities, which allowed minds with lots of potential to reach actualization and be put to work for the enrichment and betterment of all.

For a couple of dollars per person per year, the National Weather Service provides non-biased, accurate and timely weather forecasts available to anyone. One of our most valuable federal agencies is also one of our least known or appreciated: the National Institute of Standards and Technology, formerly the National Bureau of Standards. Not only does it say how to define an inch or a pound, it also defines standards for more complex things, like data security. Defining it once by engaging the best minds on these subjects keeps everyone from reinventing the wheel. Standards save huge amounts of money and promote competition, but we take them for granted. By promoting open standards and interoperability, NIST and other standards organizations allow the private sector to thrive and we consumers pay lower prices and get more broadly useful products.

Does the government waste money? Most certainly. We waste billions in Medicare fraud every year, and arguably wasted hundreds of billions in recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can understand why some would infer from these examples that that the government simply cannot manage any large problems. However, the government is tasked to manage large problems all the time because lawmakers think those tasks are important. Many times, the tasks are unique and have never been done before, and are inherently risky. For any risky endeavor, there is a likelihood of failure, thus it’s not surprising that government’s record is so spotty. However, by approving these programs, lawmakers are essentially saying they should move forward in spite of the risks.

Oversight is supposed to be the solution, but it works haphazardly. Congress has the responsibility but it seems poor at it. There are other mechanisms in place to audit federal agencies: the Government Accountability Office, inspector generals at every agency, reporting to the Office of Management and Budget and much more. What does not happen often is that a program is held accountable for achieving results, with the penalty that the program goes away if results are not achieved. Some programs have sunset provisions, but these are the exception. (You might want to review my thoughts on how to make a truly accountable government.)

Yes, I can understand that people don’t like to pay taxes. Yes, I can understand that they don’t think the government should be doing lots of things that it does, and want to eliminate huge chunks of the government and pocket the money instead. Doing so may eliminate a lot of waste and fraud by ending a bad program, but it doesn’t eliminate the underlying problems. Eliminate the EPA and pollution is not going to go away. It will get worse. Eliminate the FDA and you run the risk of having unsafe drugs. Eliminate Medicaid, food stamps and welfare and you run the risk of revolution. Eliminate transportation funding and expect more people to die from bridge collapses or find their cars falling into sinkholes.

The real question is whether the costs to society are greater or less because of government, because the costs will get paid either way. They will happen either through taxes or through costs like lowered life expectancies, greater crime, poorly educated children, fouled water and air, unsafe food and a crappy transportation structure. The private sector cannot rush into save us from these problems. They might, if they see some profit in it, but any solution won’t be in your best interest, but in theirs.

The really successful governments these days are those that meld the best of the private and public sectors. Look at Germany, with a progressive government and a huge welfare state that still lives within its means, is thrifty and is innovative in producing products the world needs. Thanks to its government, it is leading the way in getting energy from renewable resources. It did not happen in the absence of government, but because of government. It also happened because Germans believe in their government and support it, unlike large portions of Americans, who are trained to be suspicious of government.

Our imperfect government is a result of an imperfect democracy driven largely by unelected special interests. When it does not truly serve the public good, it becomes ineffective and corrupt. When it works with the public good in mind, as it did for the Internet, it can drive the future and make us world leaders, rather than laggards.

Whether you agree with me or not, that you are reading this at all is due to the fact that you, the taxpayer, invested in a risky venture that networked us together. Without this investment, the United States would now almost certainly be a second world country, because what would we produce otherwise that the world would want? It values our ability to innovate, and our innovation is predicated in part on massive research, far beyond the ability of the private sector alone to attempt. This kind of research can only be done by the public sector and our educational institutions. If we don’t make these investments, other countries will before we will, and we will be a far poorer nation because of it.

 
The Thinker

The forgotten battle

I’m going through a Civil War phase. Considering the scope and size of the Civil War, it’s a lot to absorb. Even when I complete Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War, in a way I will have just sampled it. Having finished Volume One, I already have an appreciation for its origins and complexity.

There are over ten thousand books on the Civil War chronicling virtually every aspect of the war from multiple perspectives. And yet one battle of that war has gotten curiously little attention, the Battle of Chantilly, also known as the Battle of Ox Hill. Back in 2004 it got my attention when I visited a small site dedicated to the battle, which was fought about five miles from my house near Chantilly, Virginia. Given the tiny size of the 4.8-acre memorial park, it was easy to assume the battle was only a skirmish. That was not the case. While certainly not on the scale of battles like Antietam (which occurred a few weeks after the battle), it was hardly insignificant. The Confederacy had 516 casualties (83 killed, 418 wounded and 15 missing). The Union fared worse with 679 casualties (138 killed, 472 wounded and 69 missing). History happened practically in my backyard and me as well as most of my neighbors were largely clueless. It didn’t help that the monument site is hard to find, and virtually the whole battlefield has been developed and now consists principally of multi-family dwellings and shopping centers.

The battle finally got the attention it deserved in 2002 with the publication of the obscure book Tempest at Ox Hill by the historian David A. Welker. It drew my attention because it was the first book written about the battle. Welker, a resident of Centreville, was drawn to the battle for the same reason I was: because it happened so close to home. In the preface he expresses the disappointment I shared with this lost battlefield, and notes that the local Toys-R-Us store at Fair Lakes Plaza now stands where Confederate General Stonewall Jackson marshaled troops for the battle. On what was Ox Hill, the high point near the battle, the major attraction is another shopping center with among other things a Safeway.

September 1, 2012 will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle. I’m betting no one will bother to mark the occasion, in part because except for the hard to get to memorial park there is no real place to congregate in the area of the battle. Even at the time both the Union and the Confederacy sort of ignored the battle. It occurred a few days after the second Battle of Manassas, which the Union lost again. The head of the Union Army, General John Pope was largely unaware of the battle. He was aware that General Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia stared at him from across him from the battlements he was using in nearby Centreville, might be trying to flank him. Badly beaten, he wanted to retire his army into the safety of Washington D.C. but wanted the command to come from Washington so he would not be blamed for the retreat. To solve his problem he began a discreet withdrawal of his army along Little River Turnpike, but ordered units from Brigadier General Isaac Steven’s 1st Division to guard northern side of the road, in case General Stonewall Jackson’s division attempted to attack his flank as he withdrew.

Thanks to Welker’s meticulous research, this obscure battle has been brought to life in the book. There was little documentation of the battle at the time. This was in part because two Union generals, Brigadier Generals Stevens and Kearny both lost their lives in the battle. It was also due to General Stonewall Jackson’s belated and poor reporting of the battle. General Pope had no idea that the battle had happened until later, while General Lee, who ordered Jackson to perform the flanking maneuver, also had no idea what was happening, as his army was back near the Manassas battlefield. That left Welker to research myriad lesser and second hand sources to get a better idea of the battle, including memories of both lesser officers and common soldiers.

The book will more than scratch the itch of those curious about the battle, which should be lots of people who live in and around Fairfax, Chantilly and Centreville in Virginia. Some elements of the battle were well known, including the loss of two Union generals and the long, hellacious thunderstorm that occurred druing the battle. What was missing was the why and how, and here Welker amply fills in the details with a chronology supplemented by the memories of many veterans.

A curious set of circumstances led to a battle that was essentially a stalemate. It can be thought of as a Union victory in the sense that Stonewall Jackson and his army were prevented from succeeding in a flank attack as the Army of Virginia withdrew. Within weeks the defeated army was reconstituted and fought well at Antietam. Welker brings to light some facts that I believe were hitherto not well known. For example, Major General J.E.B. Stuart, in a skirmish close to what is still known as Jermantown Road and Little River Turnpike, unnecessarily informed the Union of the flanking attempt by having his cavalry’s artillery lob shells at Union troops guarding the intersection. It was stupid and spoiled the Confederacy’s element of surprise. The Union was also helped by Jackson’s surprising lethargy. For a man known to move his troops twenty or more miles a day to win many a flank attack, instead he dithered on Little River Turnpike, moving his troops only a few miles down the road. This may have been in part because the supply train for his troops was attached to Confederate General Longstreet many miles down the road. Jackson’s troops had gone without a meal for three days. This likely accounted for their somewhat lackluster performance during the battle.

Fortunately for the Confederacy, a number of factors made the Union’s preparations inadequate. General Pope was largely unconcerned about a sizeable flank attack, as he had little evidence to support it. He also focused on the problem late in the day, making it hard to place troops where they were needed in time. That duty fell to B.G. Stevens, who did his best but quickly discerned that the Union was at a disadvantage, as Confederate soldiers could hide effectively in nearby woods. Also, to attack Union troops had to climb up hill through cornfields, making them very vulnerable. When his orders seemed to continually get ignored, he died trying to reposition his troops. His untimely death resulted in a critical loss of leadership during the battle, which if Jackson had been more agile might well have destroyed much of the retreating Army of Virginia.

Union soldiers that straggled back from the battle kept trying to get help from generals moving their troops down the turnpike toward Washington. They asked for reinforcements but time and again they were spurned until B.G. Philip Kearny finally answered the call. Kearny had a reputation for being a hands-on general, and if that meant charging headfirst into battle to lead or rearrange his troops so be it. Only this time he suffered Isaac’s fate as well when he was shot through the saddle and the bullet lodged in his heart. He likely died instantly.

The violent thunderstorms caused thick muddy fields and fouled rifles, and often made it hard to even find friend or foe. Like many battles of its time, it effectively ended at dark. For the most part, retreating Union troops ignored the fighting to their north. The only real question was whether the fight would resume in the morning. By morning most of Pope’s troops were in the relative safety of Fairfax or closer to Washington, so there wasn’t much left to attack. But also General Lee finally realized that Pope was retreating toward Washington, and since it was heavily reinforced he thought it imprudent to waste time trying to attack the retreating army. Instead, Lee decided to move his armies north into Maryland, winning first a battle at Harpers Ferry and later arguably losing a huge battle at Antietam, the bloodiest one day battle of the Civil War.

It is no wonder then that this battle, wedged between the Second Battle of Manassas and Antietam, got short shrift by historians. Welker’s book though is interesting in part for the lessons in teaches: the subtle ways that battles are lost or won, and how counterproductive it is for generals to put themselves in the line of fire. Both Stevens and Kearny should have stayed well behind lines, despite their concerns. The loss of their leadership was in many ways far more costly than if they had stayed safely behind lines.

For myself, I hope there is a proper anniversary event in September marking this battle and if there is I hope to be there. My thanks to David Welker for satisfying my eight-year itch to really understand what happened during the Battle of Chantilly and Ox Hill.

 
The Thinker

September 11, 2001 memories

Here, slightly edited, is an email I sent out to family later in the day on September 11, 2001, written after I had a chance to collect my wits. Add it to the collective memory archive for that traumatic date.

I thank you all for your concern for my safety. In the back of my mind are always scenarios like the one that happened today. More than once I have stood outside the Hubert H. Humphrey Building where I work and wondered if an Oklahoma City bombing happened whether I would survive. Ours is a weird looking building with the first two floors much smaller than the rest of the building. Much of the building hangs out over the street. And there is metered parking right next to the building so it wouldn’t take much to park a Yellow Rider truck along the street and do another Oklahoma City. Needless to say I am glad I don’t work in the Pentagon anymore for lots of reasons, my own personal safety being only one of them. Had I still been working for the Air Force my office would have been in Rosslyn so I would have been safe. The part of the Pentagon that was hit was on the Heliport Side far from my old office in 3A153. Had I still been there I probably would have escaped but I’m sure I’d be a lot more traumatized.

Terrorism is just a risk of being a federal employee but so far it has been a pretty abstract risk. I figured my particular building was unlikely to be a target but one never knows about these things. HHS tends to be a pretty low-key sort of place and is rarely in the news. But I do work in HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson’s building (most of my agency is actually in another building) so I’m perhaps more vulnerable than most in my agency.

Like most of you I was just sitting at my desk at work when I heard rumors of the World Trade Center explosion from a colleague. I tried to get news on the ’Net but I couldn’t connect to much of anything. The story grew in the telling. I started getting frantic phone calls from Terri. It was after the Pentagon got hit that I felt a more immediate presence. I watched part of it live on MSNBC in a nearby conference room. Terri called with rumors that the White House was hit, which proved unfounded and urged me to come home immediately. There had been no executive decision to release us but my vanpool was leaving so I high tailed it out of there.

Since I work in SW it is not quite as gridlocked and frantic as NW. Still there was a lot of traffic and not much of it moving very quickly as everyone tried to bug out. Intersections were a bit more jammed than usual but people were largely obeying traffic lights. I had to scoot though because I have to walk four blocks to pick up my van. Dan, our crazy vanpool driver, called about 10:15 saying he was leaving. Dan works in the Department of Transportation building in L’Enfant Plaza and parks the van in the garage.

The atmosphere on the streets was something bordering on mild panic. No one was screaming or shouting but lots of federal workers decided they didn’t want to be in their buildings and were out on the streets. Cell phones were everywhere. People tried to hail taxis to take them home with little luck. There were rumors that the Metro was not operating that proved to be unfounded. But at the time I felt lucky to have a van as an escape route.

As we headed west on Independence Avenue we could see plumes of smoke from the fire at the Pentagon, which is not that far away rising, ironically, over the Holocaust Museum. We progressed fairly well on Independence Avenue until it ground to a crawl near the Washington Monument. Dan made a strategic decision at that point to try Constitution Avenue. It’s hard to tell if that was the right decision since that was completely jammed too. Nonetheless we eventually crept out of DC and onto I-66 west, which was stop and go, but with periods of freeway speeds.

The reality of it was hard to miss as we crossed the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge. It is actually a glorious day in Washington with clear blue skies, low humidity and temperature in the 70s. From the bridge one could appreciate the massive amount of smoke coming from the Pentagon. It was hard to imagine that so many people were dead or dying over there. I hope at least they died quickly.

Of course we had on the radio all the way back. No one was panicking in the vanpool but there was a lot of concern. I was glad to escape but I also suspected the worst was over. The journey home took about 90 minutes altogether, which wasn’t too bad under the circumstances.

I’m still in the process of analyzing my feelings over this whole thing. I’m sure it will take weeks or months to put it in perspective. It’s one thing to deal with in the abstract and it’s another thing to deal with it in reality. Like most of us caught up in it I didn’t see any mangled bodies or bleeding people. I was largely on the periphery of a crisis, which was fine with me. I fear when all this is over more than 50,000 innocent Americans will have lost their lives, most in New York City. That of course fills me with sadness and a sense of outrage. Embracing my wife after my successful journey home was quite emotional but I felt more than a little sick to my stomach. The last time I really remember feeling this was when we moved into our first townhouse to discover it had flooded overnight. This is a bit of a different experience but the feelings are similar. The uneasiness comes from realizing that security blanket we put around ourselves is mostly an illusion.

And yet something like this was bound to happen. It’s amazing in retrospect it didn’t happen sooner. The plane at the Pentagon shows how simple it is to destroy a good part of our command and control structure. Like with Pearl Harbor I got the feeling we got caught napping as a country. In reality our military has failed utterly to protect us against what are real threats are. All those words about how well protected we are against domestic terrorism I always thought were pretty empty. Rest assured we will bomb some probably innocent victims in return and cause more death and destruction. If the politicians play this right we can turn into another xenophobic Israel with hatred forever coursing through our veins and a feeling of self-righteousness that is still not justified.

The sad reality is that guns, metal detectors and sniffing dogs can’t buy this country national security. If we truly want to minimize this stuff we simply have to be less obnoxious on the international stage. Unfortunately I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. But we could learn a lot if we imitated Switzerland. So I’m sad to say I expect more of this stuff, possibly even worse, in our future. All I can do is hope that this federal employee escapes unscathed.

Terri went to donate blood first. Rosie is having an orthodontic emergency I must attend to instead. Hopefully I can donate tonight.

Later that day I wrote in an email:

An online friend of Terri’s probably lost a sister in the World Trade Center disaster.

One interesting observation from these tragedies is it brings home those who really care about you. Terri got a phone call from her childhood friend Frieda. I also got one from Cyndi, our former foster child now approaching the ripe old age of 30. And of course we heard from Terri’s Mom who was very concerned. I guess it’s nice to know that if I’m the victim of one of these things I’ll be mourned. In addition there have been emails from others. All those concerns from parents and siblings were flattering too.

I think both Terri and I have a minor cause of posttraumatic stress syndrome. We were both closer to the action than we would have liked and having fighter jets cruising at low altitudes over your house and workplace leave you feeling creepy and on edge. At some point I suspect the emotional impact is going to hit me and the tears will be flowing. I got as close today to war as I ever want to get.

Terri did manage to give blood but had to wait five hours. They were taking only O- blood since they are universal donors. When they get around to O+ I will be glad to donate.

 
The Thinker

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Who wants to live forever?
Who dares to love forever?
When love must die

“Who wants to live forever”, Queen

We all secretly lust to be immortal. It’s too bad that our cells are programmed to reproduce only a finite number of times. If nothing else kills you, at some point your own cells will betray you and refuse to replicate themselves. It’s called dying of age. We are all programmed to die.

In the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button we are entertained by the fictional story of a man who lives his life backwards. In the biography The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot we learn about the curious case of a woman who actually achieved immortality, sort of. Unfortunately, this poor African American woman from the largely unknown town of Clover in Virginia’s tobacco belt did in fact die in 1951. Henrietta Lacks died an excruciatingly painful death from cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore at the age of 31.

Henrietta Lacks (circa 1945-1950)

Henrietta Lacks (circa 1945-1950)

However, some months before she died her physician performed a biopsy on her cervix to study her cancer cells. Her cancer cells turned out to be something of a Holy Grail in medicine: human cancer cells so virulent that they were almost impossible to kill and could be reproduced en masse for research. HeLa cells (HeLa for Henrietta Lacks), as they are known today, are used around the world today to test the efficacy of various drugs. HeLa cells have led directly to the discovery of all sorts of medical insights and cures. Unlike your cells, these cancerous HeLa cells prevent the incremental shortening of telomeres, which eventually causes a cell to not replicate. While the woman Henrietta Lacks has been dead nearly sixty years, her HeLa cells have survived and flourished and can be found in thousands of biomedical laboratories around the world. It seems likely that while there is life on the earth, HeLa cells will keep replicating. They may end up being the last thing alive on Earth. Some small and cancerous part of Henrietta Lacks has effectively achieved immortality.

This book by the Jewish author Rebecca Skloot not only tells the fascinating medical story of the HeLa cells, but also the much more fascinating and often grim story of Henrietta’s family. The book is a candid story of Henrietta Lacks’s all too short life, her death and the largely dysfunctional African American family she left behind. It is also the story of a family whose lives were changed forever by their mother’s notoriety, even though they mostly lived lives in the shadows in Baltimore’s poorer and crime infested wards. It is also the remarkable story of its author Rebecca Skloot, a white Jew from Pittsburgh and her friendship with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who bore much of the baggage from her mother’s death.

The book takes us into an intimate space unknown to most whites: poverty, systematic discrimination and the suboptimal African American experience. Those of us who truly believe that African Americans are still not being discriminated against need to read this often-heartbreaking book. Skloot was able to win over the family’s trust, but it literally took many years and required enormous perseverance. Skloot supplements the book with years of research, much of it spent with distant and not so distant relatives of Henrietta in and around Baltimore and Clover, Virginia.

It turns out that the heart of this story is not Henrietta, whose life is already viewed through something of a distant mirror, but her daughter Deborah and her family. Their lack of advanced education made it impossible to understand why her mother’s cells were important. In a time of horrifying incidents like Tuskegee syphilis experiment, where African Americans were used in medical research by whites without their consent, it was not surprising that Deborah and the Lacks family believed that there were clones of their mother alive, or that others had profited off their mother’s cells while the family lived in poverty. Back in 1951 when Henrietta’s cervix was biopsied, there were no informed consent laws. Even today, tissues that you give to your doctor may be used for medical experiments without your consent. Billions were made from drugs made possible by the unique properties of HeLa cells. Research using HeLa cells arguably saved or extended millions of lives. The Lacks family certainly had reasonable grounds to feel that they were being shafted. However, no such “share the wealth” precedent existed, and no one was really to blame. In particular, Johns Hopkins Hospital was not to blame, as it was required by its founder to provide free care to the poor, which Henrietta Lacks used. Without Johns Hopkins Hospital, at best the Lacks family would have been deeply indebted by her getting treatment elsewhere. Finding treatment at all was challenging for African Americans at the time, as Jim Crow laws existed in Maryland.

Today, the descendants of Henrietta Lacks still live largely in poverty in and around Baltimore. Most of Henrietta’s children are now dead, including the pivotal daughter Deborah. Many of Henrietta’s children and grandchildren came loaded with baggage and great anger. Many went to prison, some murdered and at least one remains in prison today. We also learn of a mentally ill daughter of Henrietta who was turned over to an asylum in Crownsville, Maryland, an institution so badly managed that it killed her daughter. Back in the 1950s, since it served Negroes, the citizens of Maryland for the most part did not care that it was overcrowded, understaffed, and filthy and crime ridden. Negroes were effectively second-class citizens.

Skloot offers perhaps an unprecedented work of investigative journalism, a work that required an extraordinary amount of time, trust, probing and listening to the Lacks family. It was a labor of love that took more than a decade. I do hope that sales from this remarkable book will in fact be sufficient to create a substantial endowment fund for the Lacks family, as Skloot promised Deborah. And yet their story is simply one of millions of American families systematically marginalized and discriminated against, largely because they were born black.

This book will haunt me for a while, and should haunt you as well if you read it. It is well worth your time to inhabit the world of Henrietta Lacks and her extended family. If this book is not a contender for a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism, it should be.

 

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