November 29th, 2006

Two Dinners

Thanksgiving turned out much better than I had feared it would, although I think some of the family issues are just delayed and I can now shift to dreading Christmas--. My brother David and his wife Val brought most of the meal, catered. Georgie and I came early, cleared the mail and medications off the dining table, and provided the traditional family dishes, like scalloped corn and rutabega, that the average caterer does not provide. My father seemed actually in a good mood, so things went smoothly and with a modicum of actual cheer.

Georgie and I pretty much stayed home on "Black Friday." It's been years since we ventured near a mall or shopping center day after Thanksgiving, and we've learned by experience it's pretty futile to try to find an uncrowded movie house, either, at least around here. So we took the day easy, snuggled in, and did household things, including cooking for Saturday's dinner. (I was making soup, and we find that making the soup a day ahead and letting it mellow overnight provides a superior experience.)

Saturday the 25th, we hosted the monthly Bardic Dinner. The reading theme was "Female Detectives" and the food theme was Classic Steak House. Chef Du Jour Tom Kline brought over his gas grill and grilled delicious New York Strip and Porterhouse steaks. I had made a vegan Soup of Many Onions, using roasted vegetable broth as a base, plus dry sherry, garlic, and seven different onion types, which gave a very mellow and complex soup. Those that wanted could have it steak house style with the floating crouton and melted Gruyere cheese, but the soup was good enough to not need it. Georgie had salad, and provided a classic mix of iceberg and romaine lettuce with cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices, and radish and carrot shreds, with choice of French or Thousand Island dressings. Shrimp cocktail, dinner rolls, and mixed vegetables were among the other dishes on offer, with cheesecake for dessert.

Megan Schaffer was Skald for the evening, and read a number of entertaining pieces, starting with a segment from "The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency," by Alexander McCall Smith, and some interesting period short stories. These included a one from a Sherlock-Holmes-era series I had not been familiar with, so I found that one particularly interesting.

Burrahobbits, "Hercules, My Shipmate"

Tuesday night, November 28th, our fantasy raading group, the "Burrahobbits", met at the home of Fr. Peter Schuessler. Peter provided a very congenial meeting place with yummy snacks and drinks, and we had a good session of cheery chat before settling down to discuss the evening's book, "Hercules, My Shipmate," by Robert Graves. Graves is best known as the author of "I, Claudius," but has written many other books of non-fiction, poetry, and other fiction applying his unique blend of historical research and invented interpolation. "Hercules, My Shipmate," (1945) is his retelling of the story of Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. We found the book very interesting but not without problems. The book begins with a lengthy exposition of the religio-political history leading up to the events, particularly focusing on the struggle between the supposed indigenous Goddess religion and the patriarchal institutions of the Achean invaders who came to dominate the Greek peninsula. Interesting, but not exactly a swift start to a novel. The title character, Hercules, does not appear until the eighth chapter, but he is not really the protagonist anyway, that being of course Jason.

The book is a sometimes unwieldly mix of realism and the fantastic. The gods intervene in the affairs of men (although ambiguously, in dreams), there are apparently ghosts, Medea can do real magic, and of course Hercules has his miraculous strength. On the other hand, Graves (sometimes cleverly) demythologizes the Clashing Rocks, the Harpies, and the myth of Sysiphus. Centaurs are men with a Horse totem, and there is no unsleeping dragon guarding the Fleece, although there are guardians to outwit.

Graves' quest story seems influenced by both Sindbad the sailor and Hans Christian Anderson's "The Tinderbox", as the various members of the Argo's crew get to show off their skills in furtherance of the quest. The reading is rather dense, and one does feel that we would not have had to have every landfall and overnight stop recounted.

On the other hand, the wealth of detail does sometimes fascinate, and you end up with a feeling that you know a lot about the mythic-period cultures of the Black Sea and the Aegean, and Graves does succeed in making many of the Argo's crew inidividuals, with particular emphasis on Jason and the tragic Hercules, "whom all men admire, but none envy."

Ruthless Thoughts on Iraq

I'm reading the New York Times text of the National Security Advisor's memo on Iraqi President Al-Maliki. It is not as negative as the synopses lead ont to believe. However, the memo expresses some doubt as to his ability to stabilise Iraq by taking the steps the Security Advisor's staff reccomends.

"Maliki should:

Compel his ministers to take small steps — such as providing health services and opening bank branches in Sunni neighborhoods — to demonstrate that his government serves all ethnic communities;

Bring his political strategy with Moktada al-Sadr to closure and bring to justice any JAM actors that do not eschew violence;

Shake up his cabinet by appointing nonsectarian, capable technocrats in key service (and security) ministries;

Announce an overhaul of his own personal staff so that “it reflects the face of Iraq”;

Demand that all government workers (in ministries, the Council of Representatives and his own offices) publicly renounce all violence for the pursuit of political goals as a condition for keeping their positions;

Declare that Iraq will support the renewal of the U.N. mandate for multinational forces and will seek, as appropriate, to address bilateral issues with the United States through a SOFA [status of forces agreement] to be negotiated over the next year;

Take one or more immediate steps to inject momentum back into the reconciliation process, such as a suspension of de-Baathification measures and the submission to the Parliament or “Council of Representatives” of a draft piece of legislation for a more judicial approach;

Announce plans to expand the Iraqi Army over the next nine months; and

Declare the immediate suspension of suspect Iraqi police units and a robust program of embedding coalition forces into MOI [Ministry of the Interior] units while the MOI is revetted and retrained."

Doubtful indeed, since most of these things will happen when pigs fly, in my opinion. The Security Advisor is wary of "a campaign to consolidate Shia power in Baghdad" which is probably ultimately the only way to establish stability.

Here's my ruthless and probably wrong-headed plan for settling things down in Iraq. Note that I agree that this is a bad plan in response to a bad situation, and the outcome is likely to leave most people unhappy--which is sometimes the mark of a fair settlement.

The US should acknowlege that a state of civil war/insurrection exists in Iraq. I know of no historical situation where a civil war was settled by outside intervention without taking sides. We should obvioulsy be backing the Shia/Kurds, which means that unless they cooperate, the Sunnis go to the wall.

On the one hand, the Sunni minority as a whole richly deserves this. They have profited for decades by having their boot on the neck of the majority, and have continued to foment violence against the Kurds, Shiites, and the Coalition. On the other hand, innocent women and children don't deserve it and everything possible should be done to minimize damage.

This should be done by regularizing the Shiite militias, getting them under government supervision, and thereby curbing the actions of death squads, and ethnic cleansing generally. The Shiite militia forces have the resources, access and street cred to winkle out foreign fighters and unregenerate Saddamists where they hide, which Coalition forces do not and won't ever have.

The Sunni will have the choice of giving up violence and expelling or turning over violent elements in their midst--or not, and taking the consequences.

I consider this the most likely tactic to bring about peace in Iraq, and to tick off absolutely everyone else, except possible the Iranians, who are at odds with us anyway.

It will bring about a majority Shiite state, which should exacerbate all the Sunni states in the region, even though the Kuaitis and Saudis may well reflect that it was the majority Sunni (though secular) goverment of Saddam's Iraq that invaded on and threatened the other. Such a Shiite state would be quite likely to set aside old issues with Iran and become their ally, which is counter to our goals and of course will upset Isreal.

This state is likely to support more Kurdish autonomy, which will make the Turks and everyone with Kurdish minorities unhappy.

So, the best way to achieve our avowed goal of peace in Iraq is to pursue a course which will ultimately contravene all our long term aims--. Not much in the way of good choices.