Category Archives: War

The Star Spangled Banner, As Explained by Isaac Asimov

Thanks to Jerry Pournelle for this. He put the whole thing in his post, so I’m going to do the same. Really, we as Americans should hear the full four verses much more often than we do. They should be explained and analyzed in high school civics classes, too (at least it wasn’t in my high school way back when).

Our National Anthem

Four Stanzas

By Isaac Asimov

I have a weakness–I am crazy, absolutely nuts, about our national anthem.

The words are difficult and the tune is almost impossible, but frequently when I’m taking a shower I sing it with as much power and emotion as I can. It shakes me up every time.

I was once asked to speak at a luncheon. Taking my life in my hands, I announced I was going to sing our national anthem–all four stanzas.

This was greeted with loud groans. One man closed the door to the kitchen, where the noise of dishes and cutlery was loud and distracting. “Thanks, Herb,” I said.

“That’s all right,” he said. “It was at the request of the kitchen staff.”

I explained the background of the anthem and then sang all four stanzas.

Let me tell you, those people had never heard it before–or had never really listened. I got a standing ovation. But it was not me; it was the anthem.

More recently, while conducting a seminar, I told my students the story of the anthem and sang all four stanzas. Again there was a wild ovation and prolonged applause. And again, it was the anthem and not me.

So now let me tell you how it came to be written.

In 1812, the United States went to war with Great Britain, primarily over freedom of the seas. We were in the right. For two years, we held off the British, even though we were still a rather weak country. Great Britain was in a life and death struggle with Napoleon. In fact, just as the United States declared war, Napoleon marched off to invade Russia. If he won, as everyone expected, he would control Europe, and Great Britain would be isolated. It was no time for her to be involved in an American war.

At first, our seamen proved better than the British. After we won a battle on Lake Erie in 1813, the American commander, Oliver Hazard Perry, sent the message “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” However, the weight of the British navy beat down our ships eventually. New England, hard-hit by a tightening blockade, threatened secession.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was beaten in Russia and in 1814 was forced to abdicate. Great Britain now turned its attention to the United States, launching a three-pronged attack. The northern prong was to come down Lake Champlain toward New York and seize parts of New England. The southern prong was to go up the Mississippi, take New Orleans and paralyze the west. The central prong was to head for the mid-Atlantic states and then attack Baltimore, the greatest port south of New York. If Baltimore was taken, the nation, which still hugged the Atlantic coast, could be split in two. The fate of the United States, then, rested to a large extent on the success or failure of the central prong.

The British reached the American coast, and on August 24, 1814, took Washington, D. C. Then they moved up the Chesapeake Bay toward Baltimore. On September 12, they arrived and found 1000 men in Fort McHenry, whose guns controlled the harbor. If the British wished to take Baltimore, they would have to take the fort.

On one of the British ships was an aged physician, William Beanes, who had been arrested in Maryland and brought along as a prisoner. Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and friend of the physician, had come to the ship to negotiate his release. The British captain was willing, but the two Americans would have to wait. It was now the night of September 13, and the bombardment of Fort McHenry was about to start.

As twilight deepened, Key and Beanes saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry. Through the night, they heard bombs bursting and saw the red glare of rockets. They knew the fort was resisting and the American flag was still flying. But toward morning the bombardment ceased, and a dread silence fell. Either Fort McHenry had surrendered and the British flag flew above it, or the bombardment had failed and the American flag still flew.

As dawn began to brighten the eastern sky, Key and Beanes stared out at the fort, trying to see which flag flew over it. He and the physician must have asked each other over and over, “Can you see the flag?”

After it was all finished, Key wrote a four stanza poem telling the events of the night. Called “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” it was published in newspapers and swept the nation. Someone noted that the words fit an old English tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” –a difficult melody with an uncomfortably large vocal range. For obvious reasons, Key’s work became known as “The Star Spangled Banner,” and in 1931 Congress declared it the official anthem of the United States.

Now that you know the story, here are the words. Presumably, the old doctor is speaking. This is what he asks Key:

Oh! say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?

Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,

O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.

Oh! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

“Ramparts,” in case you don’t know, are the protective walls or other elevations that surround a fort. The first stanza asks a question. The second gives an answer

On the shore, dimly seen thro’ the mist of the deep,

Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,

What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep.

As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,

In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream

‘Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh! long may it wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

“The towering steep” is again, the ramparts. The bombardment has failed, and the British can do nothing more but sail away, their mission a failure.

In the third stanza, I feel Key allows himself to gloat over the American triumph. In the aftermath of the bombardment, Key probably was in no mood to act otherwise.

During World War II, when the British were our staunchest allies, this third stanza was not sung. However, I know it, so here it is:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore

That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion

A home and a country should leave us no more?

Their blood has washed out their foul footstep’s pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave,

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The fourth stanza, a pious hope for the future, should be sung more slowly than the other three and with even deeper feeling.

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand

Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation,

Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n – rescued land

Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto–“In God is our trust.”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I hope you will look at the national anthem with new eyes. Listen to it, the next time you have a chance, with new ears.

And don’t let them ever take it away.

–Isaac Asimov, March 1991

Wannabe Oregon Terrorist Sentenced

From Instapundit, a link to a story on the Knoxville News site about a conviction in a New York court concerning the guy (a Lebanese born Swede) trying to setup a Muslim terrorist site in southern Oregon. How strange. Anyway, this is great news. I remember when the news of this camp being busted original broke, and it really brought it to home now even in the Great Northwest, you have some dangerous religious wackos planning to kill us.

Another lesson for me with this story is how incredibly small the world has become. I mean, a Lebanese born Swede recruiting for al Qaeda in Oregon? This underlines how, again, America does not have the option of burying it’s head in the sand and wishing the world to leave it alone. If we disengage from the kinetic fight — and we probably will, due to both our current administration’s policies and simple and serious financial pressures — the world will get scarier and more dangerous and yes, more Americans will die. Technology, like what has made the world so much smaller, cannot be put back into the bag.

Afghanistan: What Would Winning Look Like?

Armed Liberal over at the Winds of Change talked to Craig Mullaney, who’s about to become the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Central Asia, including, of course, Afghanistan. The all-important question of what winning there would look like came up, and to paraphrase, it would mean not allowing Al Qaeda to use the country as a base of operations for extra-territorial attacks. We’ve done that, he points out, but only at the expense of basically pushing the bad guys over to Pakistan, which is now at the brink.

I’m mostly agree with that, but with the caveat that the democratic, liberal world needs to assist the country in transforming into something sustainable. That was always supposed to be the goal in Iraq, too (or at least one of them). Help create a more-or-less liberal, democratic country has enough of that culture and infrastructure to maintain over the years and eventually develop into a tradition, like the United States has. Not a mirror image, certainly, but along the same general ideas of a pro-market, pro-freedom system of government the devolves it’s power ultimately to the people.

Why? We don’t really have a choice, in the long run. If these kinds of governments and systems of rule are allowed to continue as technology marches on, bad, bad things will happen down the road. It’s inevitable. If you have countries like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or the Taliban’s Afghanistan with access to toys that make nukes look like child’s play in 50 years, well, yeah, enough said. It’s not really a question of if these systems and countries need to be transformed, but how does the democratic, liberal world go about encouraging it? What will work? Change by the point of a gun, as in Iraq and Afghanistan? Change by the point of diplomats and trade negotiators, as in China? Or just close your eyes and hope for the best, like large swaths of Africa? THAT’S the discussion we need to be having.

Thinking about just keeping Al Qaeda down and out in Afghanistan is thinking way, way too small. If President Obama really thinks that his predecessor was on the wrong track, then fine; just don’t whistle past the graveyard and think that these countries aren’t a huge danger. Thomas Barnett’s “gap countries” and their chaos, violence, and corruption inevitably will boil forth into what he calls the functioning core if not beaten back. In the long run, containment is bound to fail.

Unfortunately, I think that a real consensus throughout the democratic, liberal world that these systems of government cannot be allowed to exist any longer will not come until they have no choice and it’s the last possible minute to make changes. Sacrifice is usually only made throughout a society if the alternative is worse. I think that we still believe that doing (almost) nothing will result in (almost) no harm coming to us. This isn’t the 18th century, though, where a country could decide how involved with the rest of the world it wanted to be. If you try to tune it out, they’ll just get louder.

Busted Priorities

The Belmont Club had an interesting post a couple days ago highlighting, graphically, the West’s lack of perspective. The original post was done by Augean Stables. One of the Secretary of State’s first visits since being sworn in was visiting Israel, and attempting to kick start the (in it’s current state) hopeless peace process. This is seen from within and without the Obama Administration as one of their most pressing foreign relations issue. Yet, if you measure the conflicts by the sheer number dead or wounded, it’s ridiculously small.

Why the difference in how we approach the problem? I’m betting there’s lots of reasons. I remember when one of the Left’s problems with the Iraq War was that there were bigger, badder, more dangerous regimes elsewhere. What about Iran? What about North Korea? And yet, here we are with an extremely leftist President, and what’s front and center? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Fernandez goes on to poke fun at the West’s insistence of looking at the world through some rather distorted lenses. I post it here directly with the hopes that Mr. Fernandez won’t mind. It’s pretty funny, but, well, kind of true.

Nazis, Lebanon, and Journalists: Let the Fun Begin!

I just finished reading Michael Totten’s account of a little scuff up in the streets of Beirut. It’s a pretty good read, and even outside of politics, it’s a good reminder to:

1. Be willing to deal with the consequences of your actions, and,
2. Realize that there are places in the world that aren’t as safe as say, Tigard, Oregon.

Michael J. Totten: Christopher Hitchens and the Battle of Beirut

Our assailant identified himself to the policeman, and the officer took three steps back as though he did not want any trouble. He could have unholstered his weapon and stopped the attack on the spot, but even Lebanon’s armed men of the law fear the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Read the whole thing. These are basically western journalists versus Lebanese/Syrian Nazis. Excellent. Nazis, unlike communists, are pretty much universally despised in the western world. The ultimate villains. Part of me is kind of envious (a very small part). I’d like to think that I would act with conviction in a situation like that, but I don’t think you really know until you’re in it.

I wish someone had a solution to the Lebanese “problem”, but I have a feeling that the best you can hope for in that part of the world is short periods of relative calm. It’s incredibly telling that the policeman didn’t want to get involved.

Gitmo Will Close

So, our new President has made it official: Guantanamo Bay’s prison for terrorists will close within the year. No surprise, of course; this is one campaign promise that he had to keep and the Left had to keep. Originally, the Left saw this as an opportunity to attack Bush, and whether or not they believed that it was actually morally a bad thing, they were all the more happy to use it. So, is this a bad thing? Until we know the full extent of the Presidents replacement system for dealing with terrorists that do not follow the laws of war (wearing uniforms, attempting to protect civilians, etc.), then it’s up in the air.

I think that an important thing to remember is that Gitmo, in of itself, was never a real problem. It’s just a location. People that claim that real, honest to God torture took place there are either misinformed or liars. It’s simply a location that the U.S. government could use as a middle place for holding the worst of the worst. Not the United States proper, but still under our control and secure. 

Many Conservative editorialists, magazines, and pundits have been calling for a new system to be put in place for dealing with terrorists like the ones kept at Gitmo for a long time. They — including myself — were not happy with either the system that Clinton used or the system Bush used. They both suffer from not dealing with the issue head on, and in cooperation with the other branches of the government. These people absolutely should not be given full POW rights under the Geneva Conventions — they are illegal enemy combatants. Simply put, if we start treating all terrorists — regardless of how they behave in war — full POW rights, the whole point of the Conventions in the first place go away, and one reason to act with any sort of reserve or honor on the battlefield disappears. A new framework is needed to dictate how to hold this classification of prisoners, allow for interrogation, dictate what rights they are allowed, repatriation procedures, etc. 

In absence of this framework, the Belmont Club shows some of the potential problems. Again, hopefully our new President has plans in place to deal with these issues.

Shifting Definitions of “Truce”?

I saw this headline pop up on Google News, and had to click through and read it. It’s from the English Al Jazeera:

Shaky truce holds in Gaza

So, from the headline, what can I infer?

  • There’s a truce, likely between Hamas and Israel, in Gaza.
  • That truce is holding, meaning that it’s not being broken.
  • While the truce is holding and not being broken, it might break at any time.

Sound reasonable? Paragraph five, though, reads this:

The Israeli military said three rockets were launched into southern Israel since the Hamas-led truce announcement.

Huh. That would sure indicate to met that the truce is not holding. I don’t see how three rockets being fired into Israel could mean anything but the truce is not holding. Rockets are not like bullets from an AK-47 or some rocks: they always involve groups like Hamas, and/or countries like Syria or Iran. In other words, they count.

This is the stuff that just annoys me and confuses me to no end. I’m honestly mystified: why would the media say the truce is holding at the beginning, and then say it’s not — in so many words — paragraphs later? How am I supposed to interpret this in anything but cynical ways?

Photo Essay from Afghanistan

Michael Yon posted, in PDF form, a very cool photo essay from U.S. troops working in Afghanistan. It starts with photos of a huge hash bust, which the soldiers proceeded to burn. Amazing. 

A VERY large hash find. Took a bunch of guys over an hour to shovel all of this hash . The ANP wanted to burn it in place but it might have burned down the neighbors house, so shovel we did. 

Gaza’s Children

Thank you for the head’s up, Michael. This is a bit tough to watch. Anyone that thinks that Israel is the main problem with the creation of the Palestinian state should watch this. Then explain how these people are ready to run their own affairs. They’re not. I’m not sure if the Palestinian story is the saddest in the world (I’m thinking certain places in Africa are right up there), but this is awfully close to the top. 

I don’t think there’s any nice, easy solution to this whole problem, but people need to look at it with open eyes. The Palestinians are a tool used by the Arab states as a safer version of the wars they lost three times in the past. Human proxies for bullets.

Hamas, Terrorists, and War Crimes

Every time Israel gets involved in an armed conflict, the inevitable voices are raised complaining about “war crimes” they commit, and rarely do the same voices mention any problem with their enemies war making decisions. First of all, before attempting to speak authoritatively on the issue, at least skim the actual Geneva Conventions. If by “war crimes”, you mean “I wish people weren’t dying at all”, then you’re not actually talking about war crimes, OK? 

The second point I wanted to make is this: there’s a reason why these conventions were agreed upon in the first place. It was to add a modicum of civilization to a very uncivilized part of the human experience. It comes down to this: if the actors in a war do not play by the rules (wear uniforms, make an effort not to put civilians in harm’s way, etc.), then those actors get certain rights, like being treated as an official POW, and not shot in due course. This is the important part of this: if you give all actors the same rights, regardless of their behavior, they will have less reason to play by the rules.

This is something that’s always bothered me. I really do not understand those commentators that believe that bad actors (most of Hamas, al Qaeda, etc.) should get full POW rights. They should not — they ignore pretty much every rule of war. By giving them these rights, you are making future wars more and more barbaric. I’ve have never heard a good explanation for these commentator’s stance on this issue. Again, “I don’t like war” does not count, and is not nuanced.

By the way, speaking of Israel, Michael Totten is breaking away from his normal programming on his blog and covering the Israel incursion into Gaza on a daily basis. Read it: it’s good stuff.