Viruses and Humanity — An Old Story

17th-century German “plague panel” depicting the triumph of death. Panels of this kind were placed on the walls of houses to warn against the plague. A plague epidemy raged in Augsburg, Bavaria between 1607 and 1636.

Amid funny television sitcoms, exciting football games, and eating out at your favorite Thai food restaurant, it’s easy to forget about plagues. But they’ve always been part of human existence. Millions of us have died with these periodic outbreaks. Fortunately for us, we (well, most of us) now understand that these are not curses sent by angry gods but rather a natural invasion of one or another micro-organism seeking its own place in the sun. Er, in us.

A side note here: A virus is technically NOT an organism like bacteria but rather a microscopic parasite much smaller than bacteria which can’t reproduce outside of a host body.

Viruses teeter on the boundaries of what is considered life. On one hand, they contain the key elements that make up all living organisms: the nucleic acids, DNA or RNA (any given virus can only have one or the other). On the other hand, viruses lack the capacity to independently read and act upon the information contained within these nucleic acids.[1]

A virus is a submicroscopic infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of an organism. Viruses can infect all types of life forms, from animals and plants to microorganisms, including bacteria and archaea. [Since their discovery in] 1898, more than 6,000 virus species have been described in detail, of the millions of types of viruses in the environment. Viruses are found in almost every ecosystem on Earth and are the most numerous type of biological entity.[2]

So keeping in mind that these infinitesimally small entities can’t move, reproduce, or live except inside another organism, we can look back and marvel at the enormous impact these entities have wrought on the human race. Research has found that an astonishing thirty percent of all protein adaptations for humans have been driven by viruses.[3],[4]  As noted in the 2007 scientific article by Christian W. McMillan, “Epidemic Disease and Their Effect on History,”

There is perhaps no longer-lasting historical relationship than that between humans and disease, especially epidemic disease. The relationship predates agriculture, the formation of cities, and, if current research on the emergence of diseases like tuberculosis is correct, human migration out of Africa. From the earliest times to the present, epidemics have affected human history in myriad ways: demographically, culturally, politically, financially, and biologically. Humans have never known a time in history when epidemics did not loom large.[5]

Studies of prehistory suggest that bottlenecks in human evolution may have been the result of epidemics where most of a population died off leaving only a few survivors to repopulate that area or continent. Aside from restarting populations, these virulent invaders also affect the genome by selecting survivors with particular DNA profiles which then become the prevailing type. Epigenetic effects also become part of the remaining population, an inheritance by mechanisms other than through the DNA sequence of genes. … It works through chemical tags added to chromosomes that function to switch genes on or off.

The discovery of a 5,000-year-old house in China filled with skeletons is evidence of a deadly epidemic. (Image credit: Photo courtesy Chinese Archaeology)

The earliest evidence of a widespread plague is found in China where the 5,000 year old remains of prehistoric villagers had been stuffed inside a house that was subsequently burned to the ground.

No age group was spared, as the skeletons of juveniles, young adults and middle-age people were found inside the house. The archaeological site is now called “Hamin Mangha” and is one of the best-preserved prehistoric sites in northeastern China. Archaeological and anthropological study indicates that the epidemic happened quickly enough that there was no time for proper burials, and the site was not inhabited again.

Before the discovery of Hamin Mangha, another prehistoric mass burial that dates to roughly the same time period was found at a site called Miaozigou, in northeastern China. Together, these discoveries suggest that an epidemic ravaged the entire region.[6]

There’s no question that epidemics have changed not only the physical make-up of humanity but also the course of history. Among the earliest records of such events are Sanskrit notations from 1200 BC documenting a type of flu that spread through Babylon, Central Asia, Mesopotamia and Southern Asia. Since these were the first areas of the world to create written records, it follows these would be the places where such chronicles would exist. But without doubt, plagues didn’t select only advanced societies to infect.

The first well documented outbreak of epidemic disease may be the Plague of Athens, an illness which Thucydides described as starting in the head with illness that included fever, redness and inflammation in the eyes, sore throat that led to bleeding, sneezing, coughing, vomiting, and ulcers on the body. The opinions of scholars on the cause range from hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola to epidemic typhus fever.

The Plague of Athens was an epidemic that devastated the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC) when an Athenian victory still seemed within reach. The plague killed an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 people and is believed to have entered Athens through Piraeus, the city’s port and sole source of food and supplies. Much of the eastern Mediterranean also saw an outbreak of the disease, albeit with less impact.

The plague had serious effects on Athens’ society, resulting in a lack of adherence to laws and religious belief. In response laws became stricter, resulting in the punishment of non-citizens claiming to be Athenian. In addition, Pericles, the leader of Athens, died from the plague. The plague returned twice more, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427/426 BC. Some 30 pathogens have been suggested as having caused the plague.[7]

The Roman Empire suffered its first massive epidemic in the so-called Antonine Plague circa 165-180 AD. Soldiers returning to Rome from campaigning along with empire’s boundaries developed what scientists now believe was smallpox. The result in Rome’s crowded streets was the death of up to five million people. The long-lasting outbreak ended the long peaceful “Pax Romana” for the empire, with barbarian invasions weakening the government and undermining the old religious belief systems with their multiple gods, opening the door to the growth of Christianity.

The remains found where a bonfire incinerated many of the victims of the Cyprian Plague epidemic in the city of Thebes in Egypt. (Image credit: N.Cijan/Associazione Culturale per lo Studio dell’Egitto e del Sudan ONLUS)

About 100 years later, a new virus hit the Roman Empire that wiped out over one million people.  “Named after St. Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage (a city in Tunisia) who described the epidemic as signaling the end of the world, the Plague of Cyprian is estimated to have killed 5,000 people a day in Rome alone. In 2014, archaeologists in Luxor found what appears to be a mass burial site of plague victims. Their bodies were covered with a thick layer of lime (historically used as a disinfectant). Archaeologists found three kilns used to manufacture lime and the remains of plague victims burned in a giant bonfire.”[8] Thought by scholars to be another outbreak of smallpox, the disease is believed to have transferred from animal hosts to humanity and may have included measles.  The outbreak continued for nearly twenty years and contributed greatly to the fall of the empire.

In 541-542, up to 100 million died across Europe and West Asia in the epidemic known first as the Plague of Justinian (emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire at Istanbul),[9] wiping out up to 50% of the European population. The disease, later known as the Black Death (Bubonic plague) hopped over to the British Isles 100 years later and reappeared in 746-747 in the Byzantine Empire, West Asia, and Africa to ill an unknown number of victims. Meanwhile, an outbreak of smallpox in Japan killed about half the population.

A bubo on the upper thigh of a person infected with bubonic plague. Wikipedia

The Black Death is perhaps the most famous of pandemics, believed carried by fleas and also spread by human to human contact. Credited with depopulating Europe during the Middle Ages, the outbreak lasted from 1331-1353 and wiped out up to 200 million people, up to 60% of the population.

The Black Death, also known as the Pestilence and the Plague, was the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history… the bacterium Yersinia pestis is believed to have been the cause. Y. pestis infection most commonly results in bubonic plague… it most likely originated in Central Asia or East Asia, from where it travelled along the Silk Road, reaching Crimea by 1347. From there, it was most likely carried by fleas living on the black rats that travelled on Genoese merchant ships, spreading throughout the Mediterranean Basin and reaching Africa, Western Asia, and the rest of Europe via Constantinople, Sicily, and the Italian Peninsula.[10]

A recurrence of Black Death in the mid-1500s wiped out over 20,000 Londoners and another estimated 20,000 thirty years later. Various plague outbreaks around the globe continued to occur, but the biggest death toll in Britain of over 100,000 people happened in the mid-1600s. Subsequent ripples of this infection have made way through various populations since that time, and the virus remains active even in the United States.

One of greatest advantages Europeans had in its conquest of the New World were the diseases that came with them. Smallpox, measles, and yellow fever wiped out upwards of twenty million natives who had never been exposed and had no immunity. For a full list of epidemics and their impact, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_epidemics

Today, we have the advantage of knowing such disease outbreaks are not signals of the end of the world wrought by supernatural powers, but rather by invisible creatures that breed in our cells. We shouldn’t be at all surprised that yet another such eruption has occurred, given the role such entities have played throughout human history. Due to modern science, we stand at a far greater advantage than any of our forefathers in fighting such devastating illnesses. But as we’re witnessing, science is only as effective as the public and our leaders will allow.

And as far as science goes, no one yet knows exactly how COVID-19 kills people, or how long asymptomatic carriers continue to spread the virus, or whether those who’ve survived infection are vulnerable to re-infection. The horizon for a vaccine remains distant despite our advanced technology, and no one can predict whether a vaccine will be more or less as effective as the flu vaccine at its average of 50%.

Even when (if) we manage to craft an effective vaccine and discover treatments that address the viral infection with relatively useful interventions, we still must face the fact that the flip side of our advanced scientific status in the modern world is a far greater rate of intercontinental disease transmission and expansion of human population into areas previously left to nature, to name only two.

There will be new viruses.

~~~

Notes:

  1. With new viruses occurring approximately ONE EACH YEAR, the majority are viruses originating from an animal host. Of the many factors responsible, CHANGES TO LOCAL ECOSYSTEMS that perturb the balance between pathogen and principal host species is one of the major drivers, together with increasing urbanization of mankind and changes in human behavior. Many emerging viruses have RNA genomes and as such are capable of rapid mutation and selection of new variants in the face of environmental changes in host numbers and available target species. [Emphasis mine] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3630908/
  2. Scientists studying ice cores from melting glaciers have discovered previously unknown viruses that are tens of millions of years old. “The experiment revealed 33 groups of virus genuses (also known as genera) in the ice cores. Of these, 28 were previously unknown to science, the researchers said. “The microbes differed significantly across the two ice cores,” the researchers wrote in the study, ‘presumably representing the very different climate conditions at the time of deposition.’” See https://www.livescience.com/unknown-viruses-discovered-tibetan-glacier.html
  3. We still have plenty of existing, known viruses waiting at our doorstep for a fresh host population. See https://www.livescience.com/56598-deadliest-viruses-on-earth.html
  4. Graphics of viruses. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/history-of-pandemics-deadliest/

Footnotes:

[1] https://www.livescience.com/53272-what-is-a-virus.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virus

[3] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160713100911.htm

[4] https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/virus-human-evolution/

[5] https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199743292/obo-9780199743292-0155.xml

[6] https://www.livescience.com/worst-epidemics-and-pandemics-in-history.html

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plague_of_Athens

[8] https://www.livescience.com/worst-epidemics-and-pandemics-in-history.html

[9] It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how this plague led to the end of the classical world.  “The reign of Justinian was a turning-point in Late Antiquity. It is the period when paganism finally lost its long struggle to survive, and when the schism in Christianity between the Monophysite east and the Chalcedonian west became insurmountable. From a military viewpoint, it marked the last time that the Roman Empire could go on the offensive with hope of success. Africa and Italy were recovered, and a foothold was established in Spain. When Justinian died, the frontiers were still intact although the Balkans had been devastated by a series of raids and the Italian economy was in ruins. His extensive building program has left us the most celebrated example of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture that still survives: Hagia Sophia in modern Istanbul.” See https://www.roman-emperors.org/justinia.htm

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death

The Honorable Act of Protest

Students who walked out of their Montgomery County, Maryland, schools protest against gun violence in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque – RC164B322F90

The student walkout last Wednesday presented an excellent parenting opportunity. Sadly, a significant number of parents failed to recognize the opportunity. Instead, many of them sided with authoritarian school boards who insisted that any student who walked out of class in honor of the seventeen students killed at Florida’s Parkland high school should receive disciplinary action for his/her outrageous rebellion.

Parents had the choice to support this, to teach their kids about the history of protest that forms the foundation of our nation. Our country began as a protest. Important change over the subsequent centuries occurred due to protest, not quiet little acceptable moments condoned by the powers that be, but full-bodied march-in-the-streets, dump-your-damn-tea-overboard protests. This was a chance for parents and community leaders to demonstrate a true understanding of what protest means to our nation.

And to our future.

It’s sad to see that so many don’t understand, tragic that so many accept the conditioning to stand quietly and wait for someone to tell you what to do, what to think. It bodes ill for our future that what we seem to be teaching in our schools and homes today focuses on doing what we’re told instead of what is right. Sit in your assigned desk. Don’t talk. Remember to bring a pencil. Stand quietly in line.

This is training for lock-step corporate workers, not the thinking adults needed to guide our nation forward in a time of great global change. Where is the critical thinking, the understanding of history, that education is supposed to instill?

Yes, the need to stand up for the right thing may have consequences. Many of the students who walked out of class despite draconian threats of suspension and other disciplinary action understood and stood up for their rights anyway. This alone should cheer us all with hope for our collective future.

The acceptance and embrace of authoritarianism raised its ugly head last week, a fitting reminder of the mindset that allowed Donald Trump to become president. Above all else, his election to the highest office in our political system reflects this pervasive eagerness for an authority figure who claims to know the right path. This world view reflects the fear of so many who can’t catch up with the times,  with a world going too fast for their 19th century brains to understand what is required of them. They don’t like change. So the solution is a strict set of simple rules enforced by a blustering promise-maker.

These kids aren’t having it. Thank you, kids.

The Shannon-Fisher Feud

Old Washington County Courthouse with the jail in the basement. None of the murderers in the Shannon-Fisher feud ever made it to the jail.

[Special shout-out to Legends of the Old West for their tireless work in collecting and preserving information about our past.]

On Saturday December 19, 1868, young Maurice K. Shannon joined a card game at one of Evansville’s taverns. The bustling town in the extreme southwest corner of Washington County sat nearly astride the border between Arkansas and Indian Territory and suffered a rough traffic of traders, cattle rustlers, whiskey smugglers, and other desperadoes who came and went alongside established local farmers and hopeful merchants who enjoyed a thriving commercial trade of everything from guns to gingham. Maurice grew up here, the eighth of twelve children in a thriving pioneer family. Like most young men, he was itching to prove himself.

Around the table betting alongside the eager eighteen-year-old were men experienced in games of chance including one known as Major Fisher.[1] As might have been predicted by any worldly-wise onlooker, Maurice suffered a distinct disadvantage in this company and soon exhausted his betting purse. Eager to redeem himself and undoubtedly encouraged by Fisher and company to further his embarrassment, Shannon wagered his horse and its saddle on the next hand.

He lost.

Shamefaced, the boy returned home to suffer the wrath of his father Granville Shannon whose fine personal mount and prized saddle had been the property so casually lost to a game of cards. History fails to describe what punishment might have befallen young Maurice. His father had endured hardship for all of his nearly seventy years and didn’t suffer fools lightly.

Soon after his son’s ignominious blunder, Granville rode into Evansville to settle the value of his loss. He demanded Fisher pay him thirty dollars. Bemused, Fisher paid up then put out the word that he wanted full reimbursement from Maurice.

Maurice met with Fisher about a week later on December 26th and tried to make his case. He flat didn’t have thirty dollars, an equivalent of $500 in the present day. Exactly what he said to Fisher, whether he offered terms for settlement or accused Fisher of cheating, is not known. Maurice stood at the bar debating his options of which he had few. The older man had no intention of letting him off the hook.

Finis[2] Shannon, seven years older than Maurice and concerned about his younger brother’s welfare among these hardened tinhorns, had trailed him into town. Now standing in the tavern doorway, he sized up Fisher where he stood some distance from Maurice. Fisher turned and Finis thought he saw the man draw a gun. Quick to defend his brother, Finis fired and shot Fisher through the head, killing him instantly.

Finis Shannon made no effort to escape as people reacted to the shooting.  He stood judgment in a hastily called court session before the township’s justice of the peace. After hearing multiple witnesses give evidence for and against and taking into consideration the history of the conflict, the justice found Shannon’s act to be justifiable and he was set free.[3] Thus began a drawn-out affair that would span more than a year of bloody retribution.

~~~

The infamous John King Fisher of Texas. Is this the man leading the Fisher Gang in Arkansas?

According to the story passed down since the time, John K. Fisher, brother of Major Fisher, had been away at the time of the shooting. He and a friend, Calvin Carter, had been ‘south’ to attend some horse races. On his return, John learned of his brother’s death and became outraged that Finis Shannon had gone free. Demanding a higher court of justice, John K. Fisher quickly saw to Shannon’s re-arrest and had him brought to Fayetteville. There, contrary to John’s expectations, the higher court also found Shannon’s act to be justified and set him free.

John Fisher vowed revenge.

~~~

Much of the lore surrounding the Shannon-Fisher feud had to do with the so-called Fisher Gang led by John King Fisher. His right hand men in this gang were Calvin H. Carter, James “Jim” Reed, Charlie Bush, and James Black. In particular, Jim Reed’s involvement has spilled a gallon of printer’s ink due to the fact that he was married to Belle Starr, a woman whose notoriety far exceeded the reality.

One account claims that the only reason Reed came into the picture was that his brother William Scott Reed had been killed in one of the original shootouts with the Shannons, and Reed wanted revenge. Scott Reed did die in the upcoming Evansville gun battle, but that’s beside the point.

This excuse, promoted by Glenn Shirley who was a kinsman of Belle and a Western writer of the mid-20th century, may have been part of his effort to show Jim Reed as a man brought into the fight against his will.[1] But months before the shoot-out over a card game, Jim Reed, John K. Fisher, Calvin Carter, and Charlie Bush were indicted on a federal charge of selling liquor in the Indian Nations. One of the witnesses was Finis Shannon.[2],[3]

After his failed attempt to put Finis Shannon behind bars for the death of Jarrett Fisher, John K. Fisher made it known around Evansville that he planned to kill Finis. His threat hung in the air as he and his friends lay low. Meanwhile, those close to the Shannon family had risen to Finis’ defense in court as well as in the community and made no effort to hide their disgust with the vigilante justice promised by Fisher.

In particular, Finis Shannon’s father-in-law, Dr. J. C. McKinney, had taken it upon himself to advocate for Finis, no doubt in an effort to ease the mind of his distraught daughter who lived in daily fear of Fisher’s promised retribution. The couple’s daughters Laura Alice and Sophie were only three years and one year old.

A month after Finis shot Major Fisher, on January 21, 1869, Dr. McKinney made his way along Evansville’s main street to George W. McClure’s store for a few purchases. John K. Fisher spotted him outside, followed him into the store, and after exchanging a few words, shot McKinney through the heart. He walked out as McKinney lay dying in the shopkeeper’s arms.

~~~

Do you have any information about this feud or the Shannons and Fishers? Please let me know–this is still an active investigation.

These pieces of the story are excerpted from Chapter 17, Murder in the County: Fifty True Stories of the Old West, by Denele Campbell. The Shannon-Fisher Feud winds on for over a year leaving dead bodies in its wake. For the full account and the collection of all the 19th century murders in Washington County Arkansas, obtain your copy of the book at Nightbird Books in Fayetteville or order from Amazon.com 

~~~

[1] One court record names him as Major Jarrett Fisher.

[2] A corruption of Phineas, ‘Finis’ is but one of several spellings found in historical records for this man. Also found is Fins, Finas, Finias, Finius, Finies, and Fines.

[3] Goodspeed 192-194

[1] Shirley, Glenn. Belle Starr and Her Times: The Literature, the Facts, and the Legends. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982. Pages 86-93

[2] Jacket 68, pp 570-578 and p 241. Defendant Jacket Files for U. S. District Court Western Division of Arkansas, Fort Smith Division, 1866-1900. Records of District Courts of the United States 1685-2004, ARC ID: 201532. Record Group Number 21. The National Archives at Fort Worth, Fort Worth, Texas, U.S.A.

[3] Glenn Shirley’s account states that “On February 12, 1869, Finnis M. Shannon swore a writ against Fisher, Carter, Bush, and Black for introducing spirituous liquors into the Indian country, a crime for which Shannon had been arrested many times by Fort Smith federal marshals. In response to this capias, Deputy Marshal B. F. Little ‘proceeded to the Indian Nation’ with a posse of four men and ‘was gone in constant and active search for thirty-six days’ without finding his quarry.” Shirley has it wrong. Up until this time, Shannon had never been arrested.

Evansville in lower left corner of the county. Map circa 1909. Oklahoma to the left of the state line.

***History of Evansville from the 1889 Goodspeed History of Washington County, Arkansas:

This village was named in honor of Capt. Lewis Evans, who opened a store there about 1830. He was succeeded by Charles McClellan, and about 1838 a flood of merchants came in, bringing large stocks of goods to sell to the immigrant Cherokees, to whom large sums of money were due from the Government. As payment was delayed for fifteen years, many of these merchants failed, and the business interests of the town were seriously impaired. Soon after the town was laid off, Leonard Schuler established a tan-yard, the most extensive ever in the county. A horse-mill was built by Evans soon after he opened his store, and for a short time it supplied nearly the whole county with meal. There are now in the town two steam saw and grist mills, with cotton gins attached. The first was erected by C. E. Rose, in 1870, and the other by Littlejohn & McCormick, about five years ago.

The first schools in Evansville were taught by Allen M. Scott, who was succeeded by Mrs. Dr. Bartlett. For four years, from about 1874 to 1878, a graded school was maintained, but it has since been abandoned.

The business interests of the town are now represented by the following firms: J. A. Bacon, Basham & Goodrich, J. M. Chandler, J. R. Flinn, F. N. & N. B. Littlejohn and G. W. McClure, general stores; L. W. Rosser, cabinet maker; W. L. Childress, cabinet and wagon maker, and J. C. Ferguson, wagon maker. About one mile north of Evansville is a little village known as Greersburg, containing a store, a blacksmith shop, carpenter shop, a Masonic lodge and a school-house.

No known images of 19th century Evansville exist.

Check This Out!

I’m enjoying reading posts on a Facebook group page I’ve discovered, Legends of the Old West. Stories on just about everything the Old West had to offer, most recently a piece on George Maledon, the “Prince of Hangmen.” Reportedly holding the record for executing the most men, Maledon worked for Hanging Judge Parker at Fort Smith from the mid 1870s to the 1890s. Lots of fascinating details in the article.

The photo posted here is also from the Legends page. It’s the Crystal Palace Saloon, Tombstone, 1880.

There are over 8000 members in this Facebook group and you do have to ask permission to join. Of course not all those folks post to the group. They have strict rules banning advertisements or even bits from Western movies–just the real stuff, ma’am. Here’s the address: https://www.facebook.com/groups/724363704322984/

Tell them I sent you.

New Release: Murder Stories!

Murder in the County: 50 True Stories of the Old West

Contrary to popular notion, Arkansas was part of the Old West along with Texas and the rest of those more familiar dusty southwestern places. Its western border joined up with the Indian Nations where many a weary marshal rode out with his bedroll and pistol carrying writs from the U. S. District Court at Fort Smith in a search for a steady stream of men rustling livestock, stealing horses, selling whiskey, or running from the law.

From its earliest days, Washington County, Arkansas, experienced some of the worst the Old West had to offer. At unexpected moments, county settlers faced their fellow man in acts of fatal violence. These murderous events not only ended hopeful lives but also forever changed those who survived them. Not to say that the murders in the county all stemmed from conflict along its western border—plenty of blood spilled within its communities and homesteads.

The fifty chapters of this collection each focus on one violent incident. Through family histories, legal records, and newspaper accounts, the long-dead actors tell their shocking stories of rage, grief, retaliation, and despair.

Available now at Amazon.com

Creating ISIS

warrior

 

Some Facebook posts circulating since the Paris tragedy voice outrage that the U.S. and its allies failed to stop ISIS at its inception.

To those I ask what, pray tell, was the beginning?

Was it during the three hundred years of Crusades when Western European Christians invaded the Middle East to drive out Islam?

Was it after WWI when the Western powers reorganized the colonized Middle East, shifting borders to suit the desires of various Western nations regardless of existing ethnic, tribal, or religious boundaries?

Was it after WWII when Western powers again reorganized Arab lands, shoving the Palestinians aside to carve out a homeland for the Jews? Couldn’t we have predicted that Arabs would resist? Perhaps that would have been the best time to nuke the whole region.

Was it when we armed the Afghan Mujaheddin in the 1980s to help them overthrow Soviet occupation? Couldn’t we have predicted that once the Cold War ended, we would abandon Afghanistan and leave tribal leaders like Osama bin Laden to take what he’d been taught to organize his devastated homeland.

Was it when we marched into Iraq, toppling the strong man government of Saddam Hussein and unleashing sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias?

Was it when the 2011 Arab spring spread from Egypt through other Middle Eastern nations and Syria’s President Assad fought back against his nation’s rebellion? The U.S. and allies hurried into Syria with support and secret ‘advisors’ to assist the rebels, bringing in sophisticated arms and other supplies that are now in the hands of ISIS. Gee, how could we have guessed?

The claim that the U. S. could have inflicted a fatal incisive strike against ISIS at any point along this tortured path shows ignorance and a single-minded obsession to heap criticism on President Obama. ISIS has never existed as a discrete target. Any attack on ISIS would result in massive collateral damage.

The entire mess points to one overarching conclusion: the more we intervene in the Middle East, the worse things get.

We’re good at meddling in other people’s affairs. At what point do we have an honest national dialogue centered on the question: Why are we in the Middle East at all?

I can tell you. It’s because of money, oil and religion. And money. Did I say money?[i]

According to a 2013 report, “over the last six decades, the U.S. has invested $299 billion in military and economic aid for Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries currently in turmoil. Egypt tops a list of ten nations, receiving $114 billion since the end of World War II. Iraq comes in second, getting nearly $60 billion from the U.S. (over and above war costs). Far outpacing those ten countries is Israel, an ally that received another $185 billion in U.S. aid in the same period.”[ii]

Why not just hand all that arms money over to the arms dealers and let them keep the weapons?

Are we getting what we paid for? If the objective is to keep the region destabilized so that we can maintain a level of control over the oil, yes. If the objective is to undermine Arab strength in order to further prop up Israel, yes.

We continue to send billions of dollars of foreign aid to the region, larding the already excessive oil profits lining the pockets of the region’s leaders. With all that money, leaders so inclined can invest in distant terrorists or add to their nation’s arsenal by purchasing arms and equipment manufactured in Western nations.

Supporters of Israel dismiss dollar amounts because their agenda is religious. People concerned about U. S. energy profits dismiss dollar amounts because their agenda is oil. Both groups fail to recognize the larger agenda behind their pet projects: money.

According to a 2013 report, “Each year, around $45-60 billion worth of arms sales are agreed. Most of these sales (something like 75%) are to developing countries. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (U.S., Russia, France, United Kingdom and China), together with Germany and Italy account for around 85% of the arms sold between 2004 and 2011.[iii]

Nearly twenty years ago, an incisive review of our foreign aid pointed to this folly:

“An examination of $13.6 billion in U.S. foreign aid activity for Fiscal Year 1997 reveals that almost half of the aid is military in nature. This assistance, in conjunction with large-scale arms exports, may actually be working counter to many stated U.S. foreign policy objectives such as promoting sustainable development, protecting human health and fostering economic growth.”[iv]

George Washington famously cautioned against the quagmire in which we’re now floundering:

“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.”[v]

Just six days ago, the columnist citing this wisdom called for an end to all but humanitarian aid to foreign nations. He’s not alone.

Opponents of a hands-off approach will cite the potential for increasing interference in the region from nations like Russia and China. In theory, our presence at the arms trade table balances their influence. But we have to ask ourselves, who was there first? I can tell you. It was us.[vi]

If we want the violence to stop, we’ll have to

  • stop giving our tax dollars to nations who spend it on arms,
  • eliminate any and all subsidies to arms dealers and manufacturers,
  • remove our forces entirely from the region and let them sort it out themselves, and
  • rescind and renegotiate any treaties with other nations so that any and all foreign aid is in the form of food, educational materials, medical supplies, and other humanitarian assistance.

Why not? It’s the only thing we haven’t tried.

 

[i] For an excellent overview of the money problem, see http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/politics/news/a39727/paris-attacks-middle-eastern-oligarchies/

[ii] A graph showing money received by various nations: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/06/us-aid-middle-east_n_3223151.html

[iii] http://www.globalissues.org/issue/73/arms-trade-a-major-cause-of-suffering

[iv] http://www.bu.edu/globalbeat/usdefense/whelan0798.html

[v] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/nov/9/bruce-fein-end-mideast-arms-sales-nonhumanitarian-/?page=all

[vi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Middle_East

Ten Lives

joy

I could spend ten lifetimes reading the stories of humankind and still not know enough. Sumeria, Greece, Egypt, Rome. China: the Records of the Grand Historian, Bamboo Annals, the Five Classics. Popol Vuh. Genghis Khan. Charlemagne. Tesla. Secret writings of ancient and medieval women.

I could spend ten lifetimes carrying out the ambitions of various parts of myself and still not do it all or well enough. Art—the swirl of vibrant color on thick white paper. Music—Bach fugue played a nine-foot grand. Literature—a turn of phrase that takes away breath, stories that ache to be told.

Plant, cultivate, and harvest, dry, freeze, slice—onion and butter sizzle in a hot iron skillet, ready for potato. Goats— chewing alfalfa hay at the barn door, watching me with yellow slit eyes. Weave and sew fine cloth, yards of it filling my arms. Gather fallen twigs to kindle a fire, add more wood and watch the flames spread, leap, fall to pulsing coals and pale ash.

I could love ten thousand men and a thousand women and still not have loved enough. Never have touched enough soft skin. Never have kissed enough lips or marveled enough at the mingling of color in the iris of an eye. Lens to the soul I worship with my body.

With endless days would come endless shapes of clouds racing across the sky, dark and turbulent rolling in with thunder, thin wisps high in frozen air. Rain lash the walls, wind bend the trees. Deep in the forest an open glade glows chartreuse. Sun sears dry ground, bakes the insects scuttling for shade. Hoar frost coats the grass and fence wire, forms iridescent lace of spider webs. Snow drifts down at dawn, five degrees and the air is blue.

In these things and countless more, the joy of physical being fills my heart, tells me why I exist. More than the grief, the suffering, the despair, it is the supreme excellence of incarnation that drives me to my stubborn end.

The Scent of Cotton Cloth

ID-10025847A thousand miles away, removed by harvest, processing, manufacture, and the long wait on some store’s shelf, the fabric retains the aroma of its origins. There is the faint trace of vegetation, chlorophyll of its rusty green leaves, and fibrous texture of its stem. There is sun beating down on the surface of the plant, the growing bolls, the dark earth enclosing its hungry roots. What hands, what machines, have planted the small black seed in fresh tilled ground?

Thick round bolls swell ever more white in the steamy rain, the rise and fall of the moon, the passing of weeks toward harvest. Its heart bursts open, waiting to serve its purpose, giving itself to whatever the world might make of it. Cotton is content in its life.

The sheet remembers its beginning. Languorous in summer heat, in the hot breeze, it undulates slowly on the clothesline before falling again to its resting profile. Blinding white, it welcomes the sun to bake it clean, to stiffen its threads, to remind it of its birth.

At the ironing board, pungent with starch, the cloth gives up its moisture in clouds of steam. Slowly, the heavy metal appliance presses the shirt stiff, its clever tailoring sharp at collar tips and cuff edges, its shiny buttons evenly placed down the front and held firmly in the grip of cotton thread. Ready now for hands, for the body that will wear it, even after hours of moving as its wearer moves, absorbing sweat and pain and fatigue, the shirt embodies its natural grace. The scent of cotton cloth rises from the heat of the body, reminding itself and the person whose body it covers that it is of the land, the sun, the wind.

Night settles gently through the countryside, bringing its tired wanderers to rest. Upon cotton sheets they lie, sheets embedded with afternoon breeze, warmth of sun, the comfort of soft dirt fields loose and gentle underneath them as they drift off to sleep. The cloth yields its memory as the fabric pulls close around the face, the shoulders, of its burden.

Months pass, years, night after night, day after day as the fabric is washed and dried, starched and ironed, stretched and pulled in daily lives, humanity’s ongoing race to gain, to finish, to understand. Cotton waits patiently in the towel, the robe, the socks and undergarments, as it gives itself to service. Its thick folds stand at the window, guarding against cold and sun, against storm. Its flexible material waits in the locker ready to run. Its woven pile lies on the couch, soft and nurturing.

Even when cotton’s long life begins to fray, wear thin, tatter, and the shirt can no longer be worn, the sheet no longer useable on the bed, cotton continues to clean windows, mop the floor, wipe up spills. Even there it finds long life, continues to yield its peculiar memory of its genesis as a young plant, its unique ability to absorb moisture, move pliantly, take up tiny particles and release them again, giving according to the need.

And when all has been given, when the life of the fabric ends, cotton moves on. Processed again, it becomes paper. Rich white sheets of paper wait for the word, the number, that serves the user, the future, with its memory. Cotton, still redolent of its birth, its perfume carrying forth in nuances of earth, sun, sky, waits for the hand. On paper, the writer gains insight and purpose, reflects on the meaning. What revelations of man, what declarations of intent, of civilization, take up life on cotton paper, become immortal and await the next incarnation?

Even then, the scent of cotton stirs faintly as the pen crosses its breast.