Tuesday, October 17, 2017

"Murmuration of Swallows"

Sydney M. Williams

Essay from Essex
“Murmuration of Swallows”
October 17, 2017

True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.”
                                                                                                William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
                                                                                                Richard III, Act 5, Scene 2 – 1592

They began to arrive a few minutes before dusk – a few singly, many in small groups, groups that become larger as the sun sank toward the horizon. Soon the darkening sky was laden with tens of thousands of (mostly) tree swallows that swept and dove in unison, first in one direction, then in another – their sonar infallible, as they flew inches apart at speeds of up to forty miles per hour. Then, they circled and twirled earthward, at ever increasing speeds, in tornado-like formation, to the grasses on Goose Island, just off the coast of Old Lyme, in the Connecticut River.

What we witnessed was one of nature’s magical moments. Ornithologists know why swallows stop to feed – to bulk up for long migrations south. They understand why they congregate in ‘flights.’ There is safety in numbers, against peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks and other predators. Naturalists know that, because of dense stands of Phragmites, Goose Island is relatively predator free. They also realize that the Connecticut River’s estuary offers, for feeding purposes, a high-density population of crepuscular insects. But scientists don’t know how their sonar works – what allows them fly in close formation and to simultaneously change direction without colliding.

Around the world there are more than eighty types of swallows, with Africa carrying the largest variety. They are common throughout North America, with tree, barn, cave, cliff and bank among the best known. They, along with martins, belong to the family of Passerine birds, which are known for aerial feeding.

Murmuration describes the phenomenon of birds flying in close formation, swooping first one way and then another, in perfect synchronization. The word derives from Middle English, the act of murmuring – the utterance of low, continuous sounds, or complaining noises. Listening carefully, as we watched them gather and circle before their descent, the noise was detectable. Swallows are not alone in their ability to fly in synchronized fashion. Starlings, often seen as one of nature’s least loved birds, are known for their aerial, spectaculars – again, mostly to avoid predators, like falcons or hawks. It is difficult for a bird of prey to single out an individual starling or swallow, when the group is moving in unison, inches apart. Keep in mind, as well, flocking birds are not idle. To borrow a phrase, they eat on the fly. They roost to rest. Scientists have determined that individual starlings are able to consistently coordinate with their seven nearest neighbors, yet how hundreds collectively correlate such movements, while flying wingtip-to-wingtip, remains a mystery.

The Connecticut River estuary is not the only place where swallows perform these acrobatics. They can be seen in the fall in England, before flying 3500 miles to South Africa. Floridians see them in the spring, before they make their way north. Like most living things, swallows are creatures of habit. For many years, cliff swallows summered at the Mission in San Juan Capistrano, California, building nests in the old, stone church. For eighty years, their return had been celebrated on March 19. Then, in the 1990s, when workers removed their nests during restoration of the Mission, they were forced to find alternative accommodations, including a near-by housing project. Now, they are being wooed back, with fake nests and the playing of recorded vocalizations. This past spring a few mud nests began to appear. The celebration will continue.

The gathering – ours that is, not the swallows – was at a beautiful home, conveniently situated overlooking Goose Island, a few hundred yards offshore – all in the estuary of the Connecticut River – and no more than a couple of miles from where Roger Tory Peterson lived for over forty years. (In fact, the event was a fund-raiser for the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, a Chapter of the Connecticut Audubon Society.)  Kayakers and other boaters could be seen positioning themselves, as they do each night when swallows descend to this small island, which they do for about a week – stuffing their bodies and conserving their strength – before continuing the long flight south. A high school string quartet played softly in the back ground, the music drifted through the evening air, as friends chatted, sipped wine and munched on passed hors d’oeuvres. All of us marveled at what we had witnessed. How lucky, I thought, we live in this place.

It is the job of scientists to seek answers. There is much for them to still learn; for example, nerve systems that allow birds their remarkable sonar. But for the rest of us, the beauty is in the mystery that remains unexplained – the fascination of watching, without comprehending, the murmuration of swallows. Nature is humbling. How does something we cannot explain – cannot even fathom – function? In this natural world with its beauty and complexities, there is room for both the artist and the scientist, each of whom, in their own way, seeks understanding. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

"The Thucydides Trap - As It Applies to Europe"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
October 16, 2017
“The Thucydides Trap – As It Applies to Europe”

There is no week, nor day, nor hour when tyranny may not
enter our country, if the people lose their roughness and spirit of defiance.”
                                                                                                            Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

The Greek Historian Thucydides (460BC-395BC) wrote that the growth of Athens and the fear that caused in Sparta would lead inevitably to war. It did, the Peloponnesian Wars (431-404BC), which were ultimately won by Sparta. Graham Allison, Harvard professor of political science coined the term “Thucydides Trap,” otherwise known as the “security dilemma,” to describe the rise of a new power and the fear it instills in an established, dominant power – China and the United States. A clash, he argues, almost always ensues. Such phenomena are not limited to geo-politics. In physics, it would be an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. And, all of us were once recalcitrant teen-agers, pushing back against resolute parents.

In his book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?, Professor Allison looks to history to provide lessons for managing “great power” rivalries that were resolved without full-blown war: the Spanish-Portuguese match-up in the 15th Century, the rise of the U.S. in the 19th Century against the British Empire, the more recent peaceful resolution of the Cold War, among others.

While a nuclear conflagration between great powers represents the world’s biggest risk, the desire for self-rule, for security is not limited to great powers.  Its consequences can be seen in the rise of nationalism, and the desire for sovereignty and respect, throughout many parts of the world – Scotland, Catalonia and Ukraine in Europe; the Kurds in the Middle East, and secessionists in the West African nations of Cameroon and Nigeria. It is in those areas where the unwary might be ensnared.

Each part of the world is unique, as is each group’s desire for independence. Regardless of the merits of each bid for independence, it is the causes that must be addressed. We can treat symptoms, and we can play the “blame” game, but cures require an understanding of causation.

In Africa, causes relate to centuries of colonization, along with the tribal nature of their indigenous people. Two countries on that continent are now experiencing separatist movements – Cameroon and Nigeria, both which became independent in the early 1960s. Cameroon, one of the oldest continuously populated parts of the world, had been occupied from the 15th through the 19th Centuries by Portuguese and Germans. After World War I, the French and English divided the country. It is the English-speaking regions that today want to split off. Nigeria, the largest country in Africa, in terms of population (and the 7th largest in the world), was once part of the British Empire. The natives of Biafra, in the southeast of the country, want independence. Like most African nations, their borders were drawn by Europeans who cared more about mineral extraction and commodities produced, than the tribes that comprise their populations. (There are, for example, over 500 languages spoken in Nigeria.) A civil war in that region fifty years ago left a million dead. Nigerian forces have again been deployed to put down this new rebellion.

In the Middle East, the Kurds seek independence from four countries – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria – where they comprise significant minorities. Apart from Turkey, which is what remains of the Ottoman Empire, these countries, as in Africa, had their borders drawn by European colonial powers after the First World War, with little regard for the people who had lived there for centuries.

But it is Europe that is the focus of this essay. Most secessionists rebel against out-of-touch elitists. Does Madrid stand aloof from Catalonians? Does Brussels respect the Flemish?  Is London concerned about the welfare of the Scots? Does Paris have the interest of the Corsicans? Most worrisome, has been a rising, entitled administrative state in Brussels that threatens the sovereignty of countries that have existed, in some cases, for over a thousand years. What, for example, does the EU Parliament know about Welch coal miners, Manchester cab drivers and London bankers? Why should laws that govern these businesses and the regulations by which they must abide be created in Brussels? Is not this taxation without representation?

Europe deserves our respect. It was the birthplace of the Enlightenment, which gave to the world civilization, democracy and free-market capitalism. It was in Europe where Christianity took hold. It was Europe, with a big assist from the United States, that stood up to Fascism and Nazism. But, it was also Europe that first appeased and then fell victim to the persuasion of Mussolini and Hitler. It was Europe, through colonization, that exploited much of what we now call the developing world. Europe’s industrialization depended on cheap raw materials from overseas. Luxuries, like tea, coffee, sugar and tobacco – grown in fields worked by slaves – came from those colonies. Armies were deployed to put down insurrections. With colonization came sanctimony and arrogance, traits that infect Europe’s leaders today. There is hypocrisy in the assumed moral and intellectual superiority expressed by Brussel’s bureaucrats toward any who challenge them. With globalists, the administrative state replaces local governments.

Governing is not easy. It is akin to herding cats. But, without it, anarchy reigns; with too much, autocracy rules. Good government permits freedom of speech, assembly and movement. It offers a basic education and the right to own property. It provides the rule of law. It allows individuals with disparate political leanings to live in harmony. The nation state is worth preserving, as Lincoln did in 1861. But not all nations are born equal. In the post-War period, many were subjected to Communist rule. Germany was divided. Those who were consigned to the East in 1945 fared poorly, as do Koreans today who live north of the 38th Parallel. On the other hand, most of the fifteen or so countries that were given independence upon the collapse of the Soviet Union have fared well. Does anyone believe that the average Ukrainian would be better off governed from Moscow? Every separatist bid should be considered on its own merits. There is no “one-size-fits-all” in the realm of geopolitics.

Most Europeans want what all people want – freedom, peace and prosperity. The question: how can it best be achieved? Is a Europe united in government, defense, laws and currency required? Or is respect for one another’s sovereignty – governments, borders, laws, culture, human rights – a better answer? A forum for the free exchange of ideas should be available; trade should be fair and open. Nations’ tax systems and laws should not impede the flow of capital, nor should borders stem the tide of honorable, hard-working people.

The trap that bears Thucydides name is not limited to great powers. The world and its inhabitants are in constant flux. Nations rise and fall. Since 1990, there have been, according to one source, thirty-four new countries formed – in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific. Since my birth, in January 1941, 157 of the 195 sovereign states have been born or had new forms of governments. Every new state poses risk for those that were there before.  But the “trap” also applies to smug administrators who, due to their claimed superior intelligence and morality, feel entitled to rule, like those in multi-national organizations, or in Brussels. What is the cause for revolts against authority. Bureaucrats should look in the mirror.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Burrowing into Books - Hue 1968

Sydney M. Williams
30 Bokum Road – Apartment 314
Essex, CT  06426

Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings

                                                                                                                                     October 9, 2017

“Hue 1968”
Mark Bowden

In this peaceful city [Hue], during Tet, it was traditional to send cups of paper
with lit candles floating down the Huong like flickering blossoms, prayers
 for health, for success, for the memory of loved ones gone away…for an end
 to the war and killing…a vast flotilla of hope, many thousands of tiny flames.

Not this year
                                                                                                            Hue 1968
                                                                                                            Mark Bowden

Vietnam was my generation’s war. I was lucky, though and did not have to go. In February 1968, I was 27, married and a father of two, with four months to go on a six-year enlistment. In June 1962, I had enlisted in the U.S. Army reserve, at a time when most, including me, knew little, if anything, about South East Asia. While the U.S. did then have troops in Vietnam, their presence was small and our basic-training sergeants used Korea as their standard. By the time I was discharged, the United States was drafting 50,000 young men a month. Over the long length of the war, 2,700,000 Americans served in Vietnam, or almost 10% of the eligible population. 58,148 were killed and 75,000 severely disabled. 240 were awarded the Medal of Honor.

The Battle of Hue and its impact on the U.S. public’s perception of the war, is the story Mark Bowden tells. Most soldiers had been trained for the jungle; Hue was fought in the city – door-to-door, building-to-building, block-by-block. Bowden writes: “…Hue deserves to be widely remembered as the single bloodiest battle of the war, one of its defining events, and one of the most intense urban battles in American history.”

With the release of Ken Burns’ eighteen-hour documentary on the Vietnam War, fifty-year-old wounds have been re-opened. Vietnam divided the nation, more violently than today. It was the SDS and Radical “Yippes” (Youth International Party) against the police and “hard-hatters.” The losses at Hue, along with the lies and obduracy of General Westmoreland and others, led many to question government’s messages. Were we being told the truth? The under-educated and minorities comprised more than their share of foot soldiers, while many sons of the wealthy stayed in school or fled to Canada. Bowden’s book is more of a dispassionate look at that period, than is Burns’ documentary. The latter honors the soldiers, but de-emphasizes the war’s original goal – averting the spread of Communism.

It has been forty-two years since the last helicopter left Saigon with the last American aboard. Yet, feelings remain high. Was the war a mistake? On whose shoulders should blame lie? Did those who were killed or wounded, die or suffer in vain? Did the South Vietnamese endure unduly because of the U.S.’s hasty and ignominious retreat? Would the Khmer Rouge have committed genocide in Cambodia had Americans remained in Vietnam? Why were so many returning veterans treated so shabbily? Why did leaders who had privately lost faith in the war, continue to exploit the loyalty, ideals and patriotism of young American soldiers? These questions, and more, continue to haunt. It is probably too soon to answer them. Toward the end of his book, Mr. Bowden writes wisely: “Beware of men with theories that explain everything. Trust those who approach the world with humility and cautious insight.”

I believe Mark Bowden is right. The morality of the war should be debated, but answers are still being weighed. All wars are tragic, but those that are abandoned by politicians bear a special place in our hearts and minds. This book is their memorial. The soldiers who fought in Vietnam – in cities like Hue – were as brave as those who stormed the beaches at Anzio, Normandy and Iwo Jima. Because of his vivid descriptions of battle, this book, at times, is difficult to read, but Mark Bowden has done us a service in bringing the story of Hue, and the soldiers who fought there, to our attention.