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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 2, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Long Shadow, National Harbor

A hundred years ago this week, the Western Front in World War I was becoming locked down in a pattern that nobody foresaw would last for four brutal years and waste more than a million lives.

The Battle of the Marne was over and the Germans and Brits had finished their Race to the Sea, so that the battle lines stretched from the English Channel to the Ardennes.

Since all the commanders on both sides believed in the supremacy of the offensive in warfare, they just couldn't resist sending waves of infantry against intrenched enemy lines to be slaughtered by machine guns and barrages from pre-aimed artillery.

In the Battle of Ypres on 19 October 1914, the Germans would launch a major attack, hoping to score the breakthrough that their military doctrine required. They sent inexperienced 17- to 20-year-old soldiers, many of them fresh out of school, to march to their deaths, shoulder to shoulder, singing patriotic songs.

Even the Germans called it the "Massacre of the Innocents."

Before November, the offensive would cost a quarter of a million lives -- including nearly half of the British Regular Army. Yet, oddly enough, Britain became the last of the major power to institute a draft. Instead, they would rely on volunteers to replace their soul-numbing losses.

Why did it work? Because of British women. You don't need a draft when any man who is not in military uniform is challenged by young women who demand to know why they haven't volunteered -- or who give them a white feather, signifying cowardice. Public shaming worked way better than the draft to keep cannon fodder heading for the most stupid, pointless waste of soldiery in human history.

The history of World War I is an exercise in weeping frustration as unteachable commanders kept thinking that if they just sent enough soldiers "over the top," they could somehow get past the enemy machine guns.

Only Winston Churchill seemed to realize that continuing to try the same tactics would never work. He tried an end run by forcing the Dardanelles, where a career-hack naval commander failed to follow orders on a plan that was 24 hours away from total success; and Churchill also thought of and sponsored the development of the tank, which finally broke through the trench warfare.

World War I -- which was called "the Great War" until 1939 -- wiped out a generation of young men in Britain, France, and Germany, and led to the collapse of Tsarist Russia and installed the Bolsheviks as the new, even more brutal Tsars. (Putin is just Stalin Lite, but he is trying to continue the Russian imperialist tradition.)

When we look back at the 20th Century, the First World War can almost seem like the forgotten war; but in many ways it shaped the whole history of Europe and therefore of the world for generations afterward.

Maybe you aren't interested in commemorating the Great War by reading military history, but I have an alternative that might be even more interesting: The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century, by David Reynolds.

Reynolds shows how the public perception of the Great War differed in each country and in each decade, and how public policy was prompted by a completely understandable dread of ever going through such an ordeal again.

Neville Chamberlain's fatal attempts to appease Hitler by abandoning countries that might have resisted him is far more understandable if you remember that England's wounds from World War I were not yet healed. Everyone had lost friends and family members in that war, and understood the hideous price that might follow any attempt to stop Hitler.

(One wonders, though, why the American Left today, led by the Beloved Leader, is willing to break any promise and betray any ally in order to avoid war, considering that America has not suffered any such bloodbath. Instead our military victories in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan were almost surgical in their precision, and American loss of life was astonishingly low. There is no public memory of the horror of war like that in Britain and France in the 1930s.)

In reading (or listening to the audiobook of) The Long Shadow, it is almost impossible to avoid comparing the attitudes and actions of the nations that fought the Great War with the same nations -- and others -- today.

It puts a powerful new perspective on the war, reminding us that wars don't happen in isolation, and simply declaring peace and bringing home the troops may not guarantee peace or save more lives when you face an implacable enemy that wants to shed blood.

As Reynolds carefully examines events from the more distant years of the 20th century, it's almost sad to see how he then adopts the prejudices of the European intelligentsia in discussing our most recent wars, not even bothering to fact-check the kind of assertion that he would never have taken at face value from the 1920s or 1930s.

But such frustrating lapses are very rare; most of the book is a powerful record and warning of how the stupidities of leaders can lead to devastating losses farther down the line.

One thing is certain: There is never just one lesson to learn from a war, and if you learn only one lesson, chances are you will make horrible mistakes because of the lessons you did not learn.

We are the generation whose votes will shape the future; The Long Shadow gives an excellent perspective on how public attitudes and myths can lead nations headlong into disaster.

*

When I see online titles like "Twenty-two Maps and Charts That Will Surprise You" I must admit I am a skeptic. Really? Do you think I'm that easily surprised?

Well, at least they didn't say they would amaze me or make me faint.

In fact, I was surprised more than once. The first map has a circle around China, India, Indonesia, and the nearby countries, and declares that "more than half the world's population lives inside this circle."

The circle really isn't that big.

But then there's the world map showing every country that has ever been invaded by the British (or by some group authorized by the British government).

It's a lot of countries. As in, most of them. However, it's worth pointing out that it's still smaller than the number of countries invaded by Coca Cola.

There is a map showing how huge Africa is, just by dropping a whole bunch of countries inside it. And the map showing how many countries don't use the metric system.

Isn't it nice to know we Americans have something in common with Burma?

I loved the map of the United States that names each state with the nation closest to it in land area. Rhode Island and Samoa -- that makes sense. But I thought Latvia was way larger than West Virginia, and that Bangladesh was many times larger than Georgia or Illinois.

I was miffed that North Carolina could only be linked with the non-nation of Somaliland, an unrecognized administrative district inside Somalia. Come on, the point of the map was to link states with the nation most similar in area. They should have stuck to the rule.

Maryland the size of Belgium? Oregon the size of Gabon?

So much depends on the size of the continent where a country is located. When they show you Gabon on the map of Africa, it really doesn't look all that big because Africa is huge. Then Latvia, on a map of Europe, looks much larger because Europe is, er, unhuge.

The map of world wealth is quite astonishing. The rich countries balloon to fill a lot of space on the map. But Africa, that huge continent, dangles like a fob below the Mediterranean. Huge place, desperately poor.

But on the same map, Japan is the biggest surprise -- a huge wad of wealth bigger than Germany. Maybe about the size of India.

It's encouraging to see that during George W. Bush's supposedly bloodthirsty presidency, worldwide deaths from war were at a low point in recent history -- perspective, anyone? Assault deaths in the U.S. are also falling. And it's cool that infant mortality has been halved in the past few decades.

The chart about global population exploding to 11 billion people by 2100 is, of course, absurd. All such projections have always collapsed under the weight of actual fact.

Does their projection take into account the fact that increasing prosperity lowers the birth rate? No one dreamed of that as a possibility, but in the past half century it has been the dominant fact in the failure of population predictions.

And, speaking cynically, there's the obvious fact that world population can't expand beyond our ability to feed ourselves; when we can't eat, we die in large numbers, and the numbers stop growing so fast.

And what falling birthrates and famine can't deal with, the other horsemen of the Apocalypse will see to soon enough. Ebola, anyone? And the folks at ISIS or ISIL are trying to curb the population explosion by diminishing the non-Muslim population, one head at a time.

(Since they follow the prophet Hitler rather than Muhammed, my fear is that they'll discover the efficiency of the gas chamber; beheading puts a natural limit on the volume of murder they can accomplish in the name of Allah.)

These are maps, though, worth looking at.

*

I spent a couple of hours last Saturday at National Harbor, in Maryland on the Potomac just east of DC. I knew of the place only because I had been told it was where my favorite piece of public art was relocated a few years ago.

"The Awakening," a statue of a giant rising out of the earth, used to be at Hains Point in DC, at the end of a long coastal island. But because people would drive along the island drunk, and then crash into the statue, it seemed desirable to move it.

Its placement in National Harbor might have been wonderful, right along the shore so you can see it from a large plaza above. But between the statue and the plaza, they placed a huge LED billboard, so you can at best catch a glimpse of the giant's hand -- you miss the perspective entirely.

That's like hanging a brochure rack from the frame of the Mona Lisa, so the brochures completely block her face.

But that faux pas aside, National Harbor is quite an enjoyable place to spend a day, or perhaps a couple of days.

The Ferris wheel looks like fun, if you like Ferris wheels, but it's hard to be impressed by any Ferris wheel now that the huge London Eye exists. (The world's tallest when it was built, it has now been surpassed by Ferris wheels in China, Singapore, and Las Vegas, but I don't care. The London Eye is the cool one, even if it's going to be branded by Coca-Cola starting in 2015.)

The real charm of National Harbor is that right now, for the next few weeks at least, there are shops that don't exist in every other mall in America.

So if you regard shopping in new places as a kind of recreation, then this is still pretty good. My friends and I only walked one short street and entered three stores -- and we had a great time.

One was Artcraft ( http://www.ArtCraftOnline.com ), which has a broad array of expensive and cheap, practical and decorative arts and crafts. There are bright-colored, old-fashioned-looking pieces by the group called Sticks, and many other kinds of art as well.

Of course, my shopping there was not as extensive as it might have been, because we already own my favorite things from their online shop, including the butterfly benches in our back yard.

Cariloha and Del Sol Color Change share the same retail space, but perhaps they should count as two shops. Del Sol offers clothing with Ultra-violet-sensitive art that bursts into bright color when exposed to the sun.

But the revelation was Cariloha Bamboo. I always think of bamboo as the thick grass stems girdled by notches every few inches -- you know, woody plants that are used for making walking sticks and for beating criminals in Singapore.

It turns out, though, that you can extract fibers from bamboo that can be woven into incredibly soft fabrics that are odor-resistant and hypo-allergenic. My friends bought pillowcases and I bought a towel and a throw made of the stuff, and all I can say is: They live up to the hype.

Soft and absorbent, it's the best towel I've ever used. Period. And my friends love their new pillowcases.

Truth in advertising: The bamboo towel is half bamboo and half cotton, and many other items are blends. And I've only used mine for a few days, so I can't exactly promise how long they keep that softness and absorbency.

The cost is right in line with other high-quality towels, so if you already pamper yourself in this area, the price won't break the bank.

The third store we shopped at was Stonewall Kitchen -- whose products I've already raved about here. Stuff got bought. Nuff said.

We had supper at Rosa Mexicana, a very high quality Mexican restaurant that combines innovative sauces and perfectly crafted traditional dishes.

Parking was convenient and, by visiting on an autumn Saturday instead of the summer season, we found the streets and stores busy yet uncrowded.

There are several hotels right there in the shopping area. It's worth checking things out at http://NationalHarbor.com .

I'm not sure you'll think it's worth driving or flying to DC just to stay there, but if you're going to DC anyway, it might make sense to center your activities at National Harbor and then take day trips to everything else you came to see. At least you'll know that you'll have good meals and fun shopping when you're not out touring the sights of the capital.

*

In my church, we not only encourage daily scripture reading, there are quite a few members who actually do it.

I, in my laziness, am not one of them. I used to read and study the scriptures intensively, especially when writing plays or novels or audioplays based on them. I don't imagine I've learned all that I have to learn. I've just discovered that my ability to remain awake while reading diminishes when it's material I've already read a dozen times over (or more).

A friend of mine, facing a similar problem, decided to take the astonishing step of helping herself concentrate on her scripture reading by copying out the entire book by hand. She looks at the verse and then writes it down on a separate sheet.

There are a lot of words in the scriptures. And while she does pay close attention to the meaning of what she's copying out, she also notices things that only come to your attention when you're writing something down.

She has noticed, for example, that some chapters have unusually high concentrations of high-scoring Scrabble letters.

Yes, I'm talking about the 8-point J and X and the 10-point Q and Z.

Am I saying that she plays the scriptures like a Scrabble game?

Well ... as David Spade would say (in a high-pitched squeak), "She kinda does."

It's a grand slam when a chapter contains all four high-scorers. Since a chapter can contain proper nouns, J isn't that big a thrill. But Q -- well, you have to hope for a bit of iniquity, either enacted or warned against.

But she recently found one chapter with a double grand slam -- all four high-scorers, twice each. She really doesn't expect to top that, ever.

Is this sacrilegious?

Surely it's better to have a few thoughts of Scrabble while copying out scriptures than to simply play Scrabble and ignore the scriptures entirely.

As the Disney song says, a spoonful of sugar ...

*

When I teach at Southern Virginia University, I have about a three-hour drive each way. Sometimes I make that drive at night. But it's scary, because there are deer out there who are trying to kill me.

It remains keenly in my memory that during my teens, an acquaintance of mine struck a deer while riding with her boyfriend in a Volkswagen. The deer's body hurtled through the windshield and killed them both.

Nobody in his right mind sets out to kill a deer with an automobile. It's not a legal way to hunt, and the perils are real and harsh. The problem is, nobody has mentioned to the deer how inappropriate it is to bump into cars.

So as I drive through mountain country along US 220 in Virginia, the deer play "Whack-a-Car" so regularly that I have now had my second collision with a deer on the same stretch of highway.

Since both times the deer bounded away from the accident, for all I know this last one was the same deer having a second go.

The first time, the deer rammed the side of my car with its head, requiring a door replacement.

But last week, a deer in the median leapt out in front of me, and if I had not noticed and braked instantly (i.e., if I had been texting or checking emails or even looking at my GPS), I would have had that deer through the windshield and in my face.

As it was, the right side of my bumper caught the deer in the flank at about forty miles an hour (instead of the much higher speed limit). The deer bounded away, but I had a cracked bumper and fender, as well as lesser damage along the whole right side.

Hard as it was on my car, I can't help but fear it was harder on the deer. Yes, it leapt away, but who knows how the bruising or other injury might hamper it? The predators that used to pursue deer in these eastern forests are pretty much gone, but the damage done by my car may seriously interfere with its quality of life, however long that life now continues.

What will it take to stop these predatory deer from attacking cars? Fencing every highway seems impractical, especially because it would seriously interfere with normal migration patterns.

I had never heard of such a thing, but a friend told me about Save-A-Deer Whistles. While there are several brands available, the Save-A-Deer Whistle is the smallest and cheapest, and yet quite possibly the most effective.

Each unit consists of a pair of small whistles, and it is easily mounted on the car. The whistles start to issue a sound -- too high for human ears -- at about 35 miles per hour.

The whistle almost always causes deer (and "moose, elk, antelope, and kangaroos") to freeze where they are, immobilized as they try to make sense of the sound.

Of course, with wild animals there is no certainty, but the manufacturer's tests show that 90 percent of deer stop cold, sometimes turning to look for the source of the sound.

A stopped deer is one that is not leaping into your path. However, not every deer will stop, so it's still essential to exercise caution while driving through areas thick with wildlife.

I can promise that in North Carolina and Virginia you won't hit any kangaroos or moose, with or without the Save-A-Deer Whistle. Still, my two close encounters with leaping fur-wrapped venison convinced me to install them on all our cars and pass some along to other family members.

Remember that since you can't hear the sound of the whistle yourself, you can't be sure they're on the job unless you periodically check to make sure they're still attached to the car and that the holes aren't blocked.

You can buy the Save-A-Deer Whistle on Amazon.com, or you can buy directly from the manufacturer for $5.95 at Deerwhistle.com. Even if you don't care all that much about saving deer from their own suicidal impulses, I'm betting you do care about avoiding car damage or worse.


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