Friday, December 31, 2010

"Gazing at the Sacred Peak" by Tu Fu (712-770)

For all this, what is the mountain god like?
An unending green of lands north and south:
From ethereal beauty Creation distills
There, yin and yang split dusk and dawn.

Swelling clouds sweep by. Returning birds
Strain my eyes as they vanish. One day soon,
At the summit, the other mountains will be
Small enough to hold, all in a single glance.

Happy New Year!

This poem came to mind as I watched the last sunrise of the year over Mt. Hood -- a rare break from a long rainy spell (51 out of the last 60 days!).

[Photo: Khumbu Himal near Syangboche, Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal - by M.J. O'Brien]

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hobgoblins take Manhattan

The hyperventilation over the mosque near (but hardly "at") Ground Zero in Manhattan demands a response, but then I remembered that Henry L. Mencken said it all many years ago:
"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

"Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."*

"Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule — and both commonly succeed, and are right..."
*This quote is sometimes rendered with "taste" rather than "intelligence," but I can't source either version.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The illegal siege of Gaza

Even in western media that are ordinarily friendly to Israel, from the Times of London to Libération in Paris, the seizure of the Gaza relief convoy has been widely denounced as an act "piracy" on the high seas. Is it? And is there any basis in international law for Israel's actions on the Mediterranean or within Gaza itself?

Strictly speaking, Israel's conduct on May 31st was not an act of piracy.  Olivier Corten, a French expert in international law, argues:  "....piracy refers to acts committed for private purposes.  It therefore excludes interventions by states or their armies."  In a broader sense, though, the commandos acted as "pirates" in boarding and detaining vessels in international waters that had a legal right to unobstructed passage. 

Defenders of the raid are insisting that Israel was justified in boarding the boats and enforcing its blockade of Gaza under the following provisions of the law of war [San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, 1994]:
"67. Merchant vessels flying the flag of neutral States may not be attacked unless they:
(a) are believed on reasonable grounds to be carrying contraband or breaching a blockade, and after prior warning they intentionally and clearly refuse to stop, or intentionally and clearly resist visit, search or capture…
"98. Merchant vessels believed on reasonable grounds to be breaching a blockade may be captured. Merchant vessels which, after prior warning, clearly resist capture may be attacked."
This argument is flawed in its premises for two related reasons:

1. There is no "blockade" under international law

Israel's economic isolation of Gaza is not a proper "blockade" under international law.  The standard definition of "blockade" is "an act of war by which a belligerent prevents access to or departure from a defined part of the enemy’s coasts."  Gaza is a totally dependent, and sometimes occupied, territory subject to Israel's military and economic domination.  It is not a "belligerent" or "enemy" state engaged in hostilities with another state.  Neither Turkey nor Greece, who share Cyprus (from whose waters the fleet sailed), is in an armed conflict with Israel.  An embargo can be properly directed at hostile state actors, not dependent civilian populations like the Gazans.

2. The "blockade" itself was illegal at its inception under these provisions of the San Remo Manual:
"102. The declaration or establishment of a blockade is prohibited if:
(a) it has the sole purpose of starving the civilian population or denying it other objects essential for its survival; or

(b) the damage to the civilian population is, or may be expected to be, excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the blockade..."
The "objects essential to survival" in the flotilla's 15,000-ton cargo were described in today's Jerusalem Post:
"Among the equipment that the IDF agreed to show reporters were medical supplies, including [500] electric vehicles [wheelchairs] for handicapped people, wheelchairs, stretchers, hospital beds and boxes of medicine. They also showed crates full of dry food products and children’s toys.According to [Colonel] Levi, the soldiers also found construction equipment, including sacks of concrete and metal rods. He said that Israel did not allow those products to enter into the Gaza strip for fear that they would be used to construct fortifications for terrorists and for weapons manufacture." [My emphasis and additions.]
Colonel Levy failed to mention that construction equipment is sorely needed in Gaza because Israel has systematically bulldozed Palestinian dwellings in creating free-fire zones along the borders with Israel and Egypt.  

Levy also failed to mention that the fleet's human cargo of 600+ detainees, from 60 countries, included European legislators, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, a recipient of the Nobel Peace prize and an 85-year-old survivor of the Holocaust.

The violent seizure of the vessels, which contained no arms or other military equipment, was clearly "excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage" under the section of the San Remo Manual cited above.  In fact, Israel derived no "military advantage" whatsoever from its assault on the flotilla in international waters.

Israel's policies in Gaza, including its illegal embargo, are part of a pattern of "collective punishment" that has been described by Israeli human rights groups such as  "imports are currently [January 2010] at approximately 25% of what Gaza needs, or about 2,500 truckloads of goods per month (including grain and animal feed transferred not on trucks but rather via the conveyer belt), as opposed to the 10,400 truckloads/month entering before the June 2007 closure began." notes that the blockade bans the importation of the following items:
“...sage, cardamom, cumin, coriander, ginger, jam, halva, vinegar, nutmeg, chocolate, fruit preserves, seeds and nuts, biscuits and sweets, potato chips, gas for soft drinks, dried fruit, fresh meat, plaster, tar, wood for construction, cement, iron, glucose, industrial salt, plastic/glass/metal containers, industrial margarine, tarpaulin, sheets for huts, fabric (for clothing), flavor and smell enhancers, fishing rods, various fishing nets, buoys, ropes for fishing, nylon nets for greenhouses, hatcheries and spare parts for hatcheries, spare parts for tractors, dairies for cowsheds, irrigation pipe systems, ropes to tie greenhouses planters for saplings, heaters for chicken farms, musical instruments, size A4 paper, writing implements, notebooks, newspapers, toys, razors, sewing machines and spare parts, heaters, horses, donkeys, goats, cattle, and chicks.”
Israel's ban on the importation of most construction materials should be viewed in the context of what Israel calls "economic sanctions" and what human rights groups call "collective punishment."  Gaza is unable to meet its needs internally, as points out, because "Gaza's factories are closed or are functioning at less than 10% capacity because of the inability to obtain raw materials and the inability to export finished goods."

There's an acute shortage of housing in Gaza due to Israeli demolitions and extensive damage caused by the fighting in 2009.  The flotilla's cargo included timber, cement and 100 prefabricated houses.  While Israel argues that Hamas would appropriate the building materials for the construction of bunkers and other fortifications, it has offered no relief to the tens of thousands of Palestinians who lost their homes more than a year ago.  (The fighting also disabled about 700 Palestinians, for whom the wheelchairs were intended.)

Gaza's population is totally dependent on Israel's whims to meet its basic needs for food and everything else. notes, for example:
"...Israel permits Gaza residents to receive small packets of margarine, considered a consumption item. Israel bans, however, the transfer of large buckets of margarine, because the buckets are designed for industrial use, rather than home consumption, meaning that they could be used to allow a local factory to produce biscuits."  Similarly, requests to permit empty cans intended for the preservation and marketing of Gaza-produced tomato paste have been refused, but requests to transfer prepared, Israeli-made tomato paste are permitted."
As long as direct U.S. military aid to Israel continues at its present level of $2.4 billion per year, Israel can just hunker down and continue to act with impunity despite international condemnation for its acts.  The high level of support places the U.S. in unique position to influence the Netanyahu government to open serious negotiations with Palestianians toward an overall settlement of this endless conflict.  If that's the real goal of the aid missions to Gaza, as Israel claims, then the world has to hope they succeed.

[Photo: Jabalia, Gaza Strip, after the fighting in 2009 (Wikimedia Commons)]

Saturday, May 29, 2010

No End on the (Deepwater) Horizon

"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not so sure about the universe." Albert Einstein
In that spirit, Sarah Palin suggested (on Fox News, of course) a few days ago: 
"I don’t know why the question isn’t asked by the mainstream media and by others if there’s any connection with the contributions made to President Obama and his administration and the support by the oil companies to the administration.”
Apparently Palin believes that her viewers are as careless about examining such claims as she is about making them.  Fortunately there are a few who pay close attention, usually with a dropped jaw:
"According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Republicans receive far more campaign money from the oil and gas industry than do Democrats. So far in 2010, the oil and gas industries have contributed $12.8 million to all candidates, with 71% of that money going to Republicans. During the 2008 election cycle, 77% of the industry’s $35.6 million in contributions went to Republicans, and in the 2008 presidential contest, Republican candidate Sen. John McCain received more than twice as much money from the oil and gas industries as Obama: McCain collected $2.4 million; Obama, $898,000.
"This is a decades-long trend, the center says: Since 1990, oil and gas companies have donated $238.7 million to candidates and parties, with 75% of the money going to Republicans."
Frank Herbert of the NY Times has been doing some exceptionally good writing, even by his standards, on the BP oil spill.  In his most recent column, he notes that corporate influence on both parties is pervasive:
"The oil companies and other giant corporations have a stranglehold on American policies and behavior, and are choking off the prospects of a viable social and economic future for working people and their families.
"President Obama spoke critically a couple of weeks ago about the “cozy relationship” between the oil companies and the federal government. It’s not just a cozy relationship. It’s an unholy alliance. And that alliance includes not just the oil companies but the entire spectrum of giant corporations that have used vast wealth to turn democratically elected officials into handmaidens, thus undermining not just the day-to-day interests of the people but the very essence of democracy itself."
The leak, and the catastrophe that caused it, was neither an "accident" or (as BP claimed) a "natural disaster."  It was the result of a poorly-conceived experiment that, much like the war in Iraq and the financial meltdown, was undertaken with little or no planning for failure.  Like its corporate brethren all across the global economy, BP's exclusive focus was on short-term gain and the compulsion to deliver quarterly dividends for shareholders — no matter the social or environmental costs.

Stay tuned as BP gears up for another (and even more desperate) option.  By the time it's ready to go, the gusher will inject another 4,000,000+ gallons of crude into the Gulf.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Runes' Poet Laureate: Carol A. Ellis - "In the rooms of childhood"

[Poet Carol Ellis returns with a new poem, "In the rooms of childhood," which won the second prize in the hotly-contested "Free Verse" category -- 173 entries --- of this year's Oregon State Poetry Association competition. Carol has been invited to read her poem at the OSPA conference in Eugene later this month. It will also be published in the Verseweaver anthology later this year.]

In the rooms of childhood

there are tall ceilings, dark furniture
looms above me, the radio speaks
into pervasive silence.

I’m sitting close to father, quiet,
involved in the radio story.
He leans back, shirt collar open, one arm
resting on the couch, cigarette in hand.

I like to watch his face, deep blue eyes,
small mustache, thin mouth with a grimace
of smile. When the Lone Ranger rides into night
a drumbeat of hooves fills the living room.

Other girls have loud fathers, who sometimes curse
and sit in their kitchens in white t-shirts.
They like to lift the girls high up to shoulders
and carry them, laughing, to bed.

For me there is quiet and the radio story,
outside there may be snow.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


[Note the green line at the far right representing the present.]
 Source: National Academy of Science.

The data reflected in the chart, from ice-core samples, covers the last 425,000 years of atmospheric changes in Antarctica.  It's consistent with massive databases developed from thousands of other ice-core samples, tree rings, coral samples and historical records.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Witches' sabbath: Dresden + 65 (Part I)

[This is the first in a series of postings on the bombing of Dresden in 1945 and its long-term moral and legal implications.  The series begins with a mostly-factual account of the three-wave Allied attack and its effects.]
"I shall go on writing. That is my heroism. I will bear witness, precise witness!"
— The diary of Victor Klemperer, survivor of the Holocaust and the bombing of Dresden

Exactly 65 years ago last weekend, on 13-14 February 1945, 244 Lancaster bombers of the Royal Air Force arrived on schedule over Dresden, the Saxon cultural and communications center that had barely been touched by the war to date.  The first bombs fell at 10:14 p.m. on the Altstadt ("Old City"), the designated target at the very center of Dresden.  The target, in the shape of a wedge, was more than 1.5 square miles/4 square km. in extent and included few structures of military significance.  The aiming point was a sports stadium occupied by refugees from the intense fighting on the eastern front, which was by then just 60 miles/100 km away.  The Altstadt, for the most part, contained dense residential districts and cultural landmarks that were renowned throughout Germany and the world.  It included only a handful of military installations and no industry, although nearby suburbs contained factories that were vital to the Nazi war effort.

As the Lancasters arrived over Dresden and emptied their bomb racks, a second and even larger wave of 550 RAF bombers was already en route from English airfields, arriving at 1:21 a.m. to drop thousands more incendiary and high-explosive (HE) bombs on an even broader target, which turned out to be most of the city.  Once again the factories and military installations in the suburbs, including an army barracks, were untouched.

The following afternoon (February 14th), 316 B-17 bombers of the 8th U.S. Army Air Force lumbered toward Dresden in deteriorating weather for a third attack that produced mixed results, militarily speaking.  By the time the third raid was complete, a total of 2,600 tons (2,360 metric tons) of bombs had destroyed 13 square miles (34 square km.) within the urban area, considered a "virgin" target because it had been almost immune from prior attack.  The damage could have been even worse:  the leading formation of B-17's flew past the cloud-covered city and bombed Prague, mistaking it for Dresden.  

Since most of the Dresden was already destroyed, and clouds prevented an full assessment of the damage caused by the B-17's, the third attack was considered less "successful."  But the RAF's two earlier raids started a firestorm that achieved the Allies' goal:  95% of the target, the central districts of Dresden, was obliterated in about twelve hours.

Why such total devastation?

First, conditions were ideal:  Dresden was undefended and the weather was perfectly clear, as predicted, for the two RAF attacks.  None of the three waves of bombers met any serious resistance.  Antiaircraft units had been relocated to meet more pressing needs elsewhere as the massive Allied invasion of Germany proceeded on two fronts.  A Luftwaffe fighter squadron briefly scrambled but returned to base without mounting any attacks on the bombers or their P-51 fighter escorts.  Allied losses were negligible. 

Second, conditions on the ground were ideal for the "perfect firestorm."  Most of the buildings in the central area of Dresden were made of masonry, but their structural elements were timber. The western Allies, after five years of bombing German cities, had perfected the technical means of maximizing damage and creating catastrophic fires in residential areas.  In the jargon of the time, this was known as "area bombing," as opposed to "precision" bombing of pinpoint targets — like a defensive position on a battlefield, an airbase, a factory, an oil refinery — in a relatively small area.  Area bombing (also called "carpet bombing") was not unique to the Allies — it was practiced by all sides — but they perfected its techniques over Germany and, soon, Japan.

The RAF Bomber Command's heavy reliance on area bombing was, in many respects, an admission of defeat.  Precision bombing is most effective at low altitudes during daylight, when bombers are also most vulnerable to antiaircraft fire and fighter attack.  The RAF's daylight raids earlier in the war resulted in unsustainable losses of bombers and crews, forcing an "area bombing" strategy from high altitudes during the nighttime.  The growing squadrons of the USAAF could endure heavy losses far better than the RAF, so the burden of "precision" daylight bombing fell on the crews of its B-17's and B-24's.  To reduce losses, the USAAF eventually adopted the RAF's high-altitude strategy but continued its daytime raids.  To compensate for highly inaccurate bombing from such heights, the Allied "bomber stream" often included over a thousand bombers flying in columns of 100 miles/160 km or more.

"Area bombing" typically began with a rain of HE bombs that destroyed the roofs of dwellings and caused many to collapse into the narrow streets, blocking escape and preventing fire trucks from putting out blazes.  The HE bombs also left deep craters in the streets and severed water mains, further disrupting attempts to limit the spread of the fires.  The concussion from the explosions blew out windows and doors, allowing strong drafts to penetrate the buildings that remained standing and fuel the fires.

Once the vulnerable (and volatile) interiors of dwellings were opened up to the sky, thousands of 4-pound incendiary bombs fell inside and ignited small fires.  These separate blazes quickly combined into a conflagration that could produce hurricane-force winds and consume an entire city.  Large trees were completely uprooted and firefighters were swept off their feet.  When fully developed, a firestorm sucked the oxygen right out of the air, leading to the suffocation of thousands of Dresdeners who were huddled in inadequate shelters and cellars from which they could not escape.  Thousands of civilians died from oxygen deprivation or carbon-monoxide poisoning.

By the end of the third attack, an estimated 12,000 dwellings had been immolated in central Dresden, along with 11 churches, 39 schools, a zoo and 19 hospitals.

By any standard, the human cost of the bombing was enormous.  Postwar estimates of 100,000 to as many as 250,000 deaths have, however, been greatly reduced since the records of the former East Germany became available following German reunification twenty years ago.  Until recently, the consensus of historians, German and non-German alike, was that 24,000 to 40,000 people were killed by the bombs and the inferno that followed.  In 2006, the city council of Dresden commissioned a study by a panel of German historians that produced an estimate of 18,000 to 25,000 deaths.  The exact number will never be known because thousands of refugees were streaming through the city, though the regime did everything possible to keep them moving quickly west to avoid creating bottlenecks in the transport system. 

Only about 100 of the bombing victims were members of the German military.  The large Wehrmacht (army) barracks 2 miles/3.2 km. north of central Dresden was not targeted and remained intact.  Still, the raid by B-17's on February 14th accomplished one of the principal objectives of the attack:  the destruction of railroad marshaling yards along the Elbe river that were vital to the supply and reinforcement of German troops on the eastern front.  Three days later, however, trains were running again on a very limited schedule.

[USAAF photo of Dresden on February 15, 1945]

Why was Dresden bombed so late in the war?  The city finally became an important target, more than five years after the war began, as Allied troops closed the noose around the Nazi regime.  The city was in a vital location for the movement of troops and supplies by rail and road, both from west to east and north to south.  It was on the main rail line from Berlin to Prague and Vienna.  On average, 29 trainloads of troops and arms passed through Dresden each day.  Its war industries were substantial, with over a hundred medium to large factories and workshops devoted to military production, including the massive Zeiss-Ikon plant.  Some 50,000 civilians were employed in war-related industry, including many women and slave laborers like the "armaments Jews" who were allowed to live because there was a desperate shortage of industrial workers in Germany.  Despite the military and economic significance of these suburban facilities, they were not targeted and, except for the railways, suffered little damage. 

The immolation of Dresden was quickly and widely condemned.  Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, immediately saw an opportunity to turn opinion against the Allies in neutral countries like Sweden.  It was among his last, and most successful, propaganda campaigns.  Dresden was falsely depicted, both during and after the war, as an "open city" — a strictly cultural center of no military importance that was swollen with hundreds of thousands of refugees.  The war was nearly over anyway, according to this view, and the destruction of Dresden contributed nothing to the Allied cause.

The Goebbels spin had traction.  Since 1945, the attack has been routinely condemned as an act of cultural desecration, retribution and terror bombing for its own sake.  Neo-Nazis in Germany and elsewhere continue to insist that the Allied destruction of Dresden, with an alleged death toll of up to 375,000, was the moral equivalent of the Holocaust:  "Auschwitz + Dresden = 0" remains a favorite slogan.  

Even as the ruins were still smoking, the Dresden raids received negative reviews in the neutral and Allied press alike, causing a major political flap in Britain.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill soon felt it necessary to distance himself from his own Bomber Command.  In a confidential memo written at the end of March, and quickly withdrawn, Churchill insisted that Bomber Command should focus its efforts on "military objectives" rather than "mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive."  Dresden was seen as a "raid too far" and the fallout destroyed the reputation of Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, the chief proponent of area bombing in residential districts.  Revulsion over Dresden likely led U.S. war planners to remove Kyoto, another "virgin" cultural landmark in Japan, from the list of possible targets for the atomic bomb.

After 65 years, a more nuanced and complex view of the Dresden raids and their purpose has emerged.

Was the true intent of the attack to inflict "terror and wanton destruction," as the Churchill memo suggested?  And there's a related question:  if Dresden contained factories and military installations that were so vital to the Nazi war effort, why were most of those targets ignored by planners?  An RAF memo, distributed to pilots before the bombing, explained:  "The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front ... and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do."  This language suggests that the purpose of the raids was interdiction, broadly defined:  the disruption of economic activities and German supply lines to the eastern front, exactly as Stalin had demanded at the Yalta conference earlier in February.  (Some U.S. pilots were not convinced by this rationale:  they could plainly see that the target was essentially civilian and a few bombardiers deliberately released their bombs prematurely in open country outside Dresden.)

If interdiction was the objective, why didn't the attack focus narrowly on highways, bridges, railroads and similar facilities?  In fact, the major goal of area bombing was to create as much chaos as possible in the streets and communications facilities, blocking transportation routes and disrupting war production.  In that sense, the raid was ultimately successful:  with thousands of factory workers and their families dead or homeless, even the lightly-damaged factories suffered sharp and lasting declines in production — often for the rest of the European war, which ended in German surrender three months later. With the transportation system demolished, even workers with intact dwellings were unable to get to their jobs through the bomb craters and vast piles of rubble.  With a focus on day-to-day survival for themselves and their families, workers stopped going to work and absenteeism soared.

Dresden's communications system was so disrupted that it was impossible to coordinate the movement of troops and war material through the city even as the railroads were repaired.  The raids effectively knocked Dresden out of the war, leaving it unable to contribute to Germany's defense.  Even if the bombing was effective in that sense, the moral question, under the theory of "just war," remains unresolved:  were the benefits realized by the attack proportional to the amount of suffering inflicted on the civilian residents of Dresden, who at that time were mainly women, children and the elderly?  [This will be the topic of a future posting.]

Whatever the rationale for the bombing and its military consequences, the results on the ground, in the Altstadt and neighboring districts, were horrific.  Hundreds of eyewitness accounts of the Dresden bombing and its aftermath have been compiled and published.  Here in the U.S., the city is best remembered through the work of Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war at the time of the firestorm.  Slaughterhouse Five includes a fictionalized account of what he witnessed.  (As Vonnegut explained later:  "All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true."  However, Vonnegut's claim of 135,000 civilian deaths relied on the bogus "research" of "historian" and Holocaust-denier David Irving.)

Despite its terrible consequences, the raid provided immediate, if unintended, benefits to a few residents of the city.  A small remnant of Dresden's Jewish community survived even as late as February 1945.  Many, like journalist Victor Klemperer, had been temporarily exempted from deportation to the Nazi death camps because they were married to Aryans.  Another 300 slave laborers worked twelve hours each day as "armaments Jews" ("Rüstungsjuden") in war production.  

In its final months, however, the Nazi regime dedicated itself even more ferociously to the total annihilation of the Jewish population of Europe.  Just hours before the bombing began, deportation notices had been issued to many of the remaining Jewish residents of Dresden.  They were ordered to report to the railroad station just three days later.  As Klemperer wrote in his diary:
"...on the evening of this 13 February the catastrophe overtook Dresden: the bombs fell, the houses collapsed, the phosphorus flowed, the burning beams crashed on to the heads of Aryans and non-Aryans alike and Jew and Christian met death in the same firestorm; whoever of the [Jews] was spared by this night was delivered, for in the general chaos he could escape the Gestapo." 
With the destruction of the Gestapo headquarters in the bombing, the files on Dresden's surviving Jews were destroyed. Klemperer and other survivors of the bombing could safely remove the yellow stars from their clothing and blend into the stream of refugees flowing west into territory occupied by the U.S. Army.  Victor and Eva Klemperer survived the war.

[Above: Architect Daniel Libeskind's design for the Dresden War History Museum, formerly the city's armory.  It's scheduled for opening this year.  The glass wedge, in the shape of the targeted Altstadt district, points toward central Dresden.]


Frederick Taylor,  Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945
Victor Klemperer, Diary
Max Hastings Armageddon (includes estimates of "at least 35,000" deaths as recently as 2005).
Susan Griffin, Chorus of Stones
Wikipedia article, "Bombing of Dresden in World War II"

Since reunification two decades ago, as mentioned above, the archives of the former East Germany have been open to historians for the first time, resulting in a more complete understanding of what happened in Dresden — and why.  Recent examples include the excellent Dresden by British historian Frederick Taylor, probably the definitive history in English (and the source of much of the information related here).  Anticipating the 65th anniversary of the raids, the February 1st edition of the New Yorker published an account (abstract) of the attacks and the subsequent restoration of Dresden, especially after reunification.  (The article, by George Packer, is revealingly titled, "Will Dresden Ever Confront Its Past?")  Area bombing in Europe and, especially, Japan is the subject of another New Yorker article by Roger Angell in the February 15-22 issue.

Whatever the source, it's obvious that the destruction of Dresden continues to be viewed through ideological filters more than sixty years later.

PHOTOS show Dresden during or in the aftermath of the bombing (Wikimedia). The British newsreel below shows the bombing from the air.  For views on the ground, sometimes graphic, see this short documentary.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Guest poet: Carol A. Ellis - Kathmandu cycle

[Pashupatinath is an ancient Hindu temple complex in Kathmandu, Nepal. Bhaktapur is a nearby town that was once a separate kingdom.]

At Pashupatinath

monkeys steal the sacrifice. Grains and oranges
laid out at shrines honor the dead burned
over centuries, ashes upon ashes tossed on water.

Crowds scatter marigolds and rice from black plastic bags.
Sellers of bags and beads crowd bridges above the Bagmati river
where bright orange flowers mingle with ash.

Marigold garlands drift downstream, banana leaves, plastic bags,
the body of a dog long dead. Every ghat is occupied. Bodies laid out,
covered in flowers, burn before the gathered families.

Smoke of cremation rises in stagnant air. Old temples
are made new, lingams rubbed red, daily offerings
placed for Shiva and Ganesh.

A body burned here will step off the wheel of life,
enter Nirvana, stop the cycle of birth and death. Ashes
drift to India to fertilize the wide gangetic plain.

Today, cows snuffle gently at offerings and monkeys
groom each other in temple windows.
This ground holy for three thousand years.


The Kumari

As if in dream a four year old is taken from family
to be a living goddess. She’s the one who never bleeds,
who walks alone through a dark room and touches
the severed heads of buffalo without crying.

She has her own temple. She appears at the latticed window
dressed in silk robes, eyes marked in kohl, and waves to tourists
like a homecoming queen. On holidays they take her out to ride
in processions, garlanded in marigold.

A child’s life transformed, she learns only ritual and public adulation,
a model of purity and grace, until at twelve or thirteen she bleeds
and becomes the unthinkable, a woman, who will now be cast from
divinity, sent home to live a human life.

A once blessed child, she is cursed with biology, inhabited
by the moon, lost to sunlight and marigold.


In Bhaktapur

The chicken sacrificed to a local god
will be taken home and plucked and eaten,
meat to accompany rice and dhal.

The blood fades slowly to brown
in the small shrine where women go
to pray for lost things.

The god, rubbed red with powder,
garlanded in marigold, washed in blood,
sits waiting like a watchful cat. 

[Photos by M.J. O'Brien, 2009]