Swine Flu: A Historical Note on Influenza

Given the havoc it has caused in the last hundred years, it seems relatively little is known about the history of the influenza virus before 1900.  In a quick Google search, I found a few blogs that mention historical pandemics here, here and here, and a book with some additional information here, but details are few in far between.  In browsing through an old British Quarterly Review (the issue of December, 1848), I found the following in the memoirs of the Austrian diplomat, Baron Wessenberg.  The Baron is now largely forgotten, but had an interesting career.  Captured by French partisans in 1814, he was brought before Napoleon, and undertook a mission that was probably the last undertaken by a foreign diplomat on behalf of the emperor.  He later served as Metternich’s deputy at the Congress of Vienna.  It happens that he was also resident in Paris in 1802 when it was swept by a disease he referred to as, “La Grippe,” translated by the Review as, “the Influenza:”

The influenza (La Grippe)

“All Paris was devoted to pleasures and amusements; these were not even put to flight by a horrible influenza, which was accompanied by a malignant ophthalmia, and which during several months made frightful havoc.  More than thirty thousand people fell victims to it.  This illness, and especially the ophthalmia, its dangerous adjunct, had been imported from Egypt by the troops that returned after the assassination of General Kleber.  At Paris it assumed at once an epidemic character, aided no doubt by the extreme humidity which prevailed throughout the winter.  For my own part I did not escape.  However, I had the good fortune to recover without the help of a physician, by merely following a regimen pointed out in the Journal des Debats, and which consisted in frequently applying to the eye afflicted some tendons of raw veal, and in avoiding all substantial food during the whole course of the illness.”

The Quarterly Review article includes a number of other interesting anecdotes from the Baron’s memoirs.  I recommend the great Tory review to modern readers, by the way.  Among other things, today’s “Christian nation” fundamentalists will discover in reading it who their real intellectual antecedents were.  (Hint, it wasn’t Jefferson, Madison, or Franklin).


German anti-Semitism, the Middle East “Peace Process,” and Der Spiegel

Connoisseurs of the German media will appreciate the subtle anti-Semitism in the Spiegel Online coverage of the Obama – Netanyahu summit. Of course, for well known historical reasons, the editors limit themselves to short, mincing steps in dealing with Israel, carefully lacing their coverage with even more than the usual dose of pious platitudes. Still, the thinly camouflaged “anti-Zionist” variant of European anti-Semitism that takes the form of holding Israel to a blatantly disproportionate double standard compared to her enemies is easily recognizable. For example, there are dark warnings from unnamed “experts” (Spiegel has an inexhaustible supply to fit any occasion), that the Chosen One is upset with Israel: “According to the analysis of other observers, it is finally evident that Obama no longer considers Netanyahu an ally on the path to peace in the Middle East – but rather an obstacle.” That bizarre alternative universe, in which President Obama and the Arabs are all clamoring for peace, but are constantly thwarted by Israeli intransigence, is alive and well in Der Spiegel: “’First them, then us,’ is the solution as (Netanyahu) sees it. That sounds a lot different than the bold steps Obama proposes… (he) wants to present the outlines of a comprehensive peace plan, including diplomatic approaches to Iran and Syria as well as Near East negotiations, during the state visits of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian President Abbas as well as in his speech to the Muslim world on June 4.”

Never mind that the “bold steps” Obama is proposing amount to suicide for the state of Israel. She has to go along with the “peace process,” which, as in the past, amounts to making real concessions and getting nothing in return.

The editors of Der Spiegel are as well aware as anyone that there would be peace in the Middle East tomorrow if Israel’s enemies accepted her right to exist once and for all, and stopped attacking her. As German’s, they must also be aware that her right to exist is real, and based on an historical imperative that transcends their pious phrase mongering and moralistic posing. Telling it like it is doesn’t sell magazines, though. Hate always does (see my post below on in-groups and out-groups). Yesterday, the preferred flavor of hate in Europe was anti-Americanism.  I’ve included some representative excrescences thereof that appeared in the German media from time to time, lifted from David’s Medienkritik, currently an inactive site, but with a great archive documenting anti-Americanism in the German and European media.  






 Today, it is anti-Semitism. Expect more of the same in Der Spiegel as long as the editors think they are just yapping along with the rest of the dogs.

Norman Hsu, Hillary Clinton, and the NPR Narrative

…so I was driving to work this morning, listening to Public Radio for want of better entertainment, when the voice in the box mentioned “Norman Hsu” and “Democratic fundraiser” in the same breath. Noting an involuntary elevation of my left eyebrow, I reflected that times must be hard and good help hard to find at NPR for the morning shift to stray from the narrative so egregiously. In a moment, though, all was made clear. You see, the Democrat in question, according to the announcer, was none other than Hillary Clinton. Obviously, she is far from recovering the odor of sanctity she lost when she challenged the Chosen One. Silly me, for suspecting even for a moment that the folks at NPR would botch their talking points. No doubt they felt that it would do Hillary no harm if they delivered a therapeutic reminder of what will happen to her if she even thinks of running again in 2012. Checking the story on the Internet, I confirmed that it was being played in pianissimo by the MSM, and, if mentioned at all, emphasized the Hillary angle. The narrative lives!

Why the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) is a Bad Idea

The incomparable Instapundit recently linked a TNR article on the demise of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) Program. According to TNR, ““Obama’s new budget plan includes a little-noted sea change in U.S. nuclear policy, and a step towards his vision of a denuclearized world. It provides no funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, created to design a new generation of long-lasting nuclear weapons that don’t need to be tested. (The military is worried that a nuclear test moratorium in effect since 1992 might endanger the reliability of an aging US arsenal.) But this spring Obama issued a bold call for a world free of nuclear weapons, and part of that vision entails leading by example. . . . Obama’s budget kills the National Nuclear Security Administration program once and for all.” Glenn’s post included the sour rejoinder, “So, a question: If Obama were trying to wreck America as a superpower, what would he be doing differently?” It’s remarkable how few blogs have weighed in on this issue. Miscellaneous specimens of web chatter can be found here, here, here, and here., and the “orthodox” arguments in favor may be found here. I’m anything but sanguine about Obama’s grasp of national security issues. However, for reasons that probably never occurred to the POTUS, I think the redoubtable Glenn is wrong this time.

Here’s why. There has been a strong contingent at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), at the National Weapons Laboratories, and in the military, who are either in favor of a resumption of nuclear testing or have considered such a resumption inevitable since the time that the RRW was but a twinkle in some designer’s eye. Why? One can only speculate. Perhaps it’s because the National Weapons Laboratories want to survive, and it has not failed to occur to those who have the interests of the labs at heart that a return to nuclear testing would substantially enhance their national relevance. It would also help to solve their demographic problem. It’s hard to attract top drawer scientists with the prospect of acting as custodians for an aging stockpile of nuclear weapons. Regardless, it has been a tacit assumption among a good number of folks with connections of one kind or another to the national weapons program that we would resume nuclear testing, and better sooner than later.

Enter the RRW. According to the prevailing narrative, the RRW can be built without the slightest need for a return to testing. This is nonsense. Ten years ago, any designer worth his salt would have reacted with scorn to such a suggestion. Today, they remain mum, not because they are completely confident in the “full physics” nuclear weapons codes that NNSA’s Advanced Simulation and Computing (ASC) program is turning out, but because they don’t want to rock the boat. Believe me, if the RRW were actually built, they would find reasons by the dump truck full to test it. The pressure to do so would become virtually irresistable. However, a return to testing would be a very bad idea for the US.

Why? Our nuclear weapons program is mature, and our mastery of the relevant physics is unsurpassed. Is it reasonable to give the rest of the world a chance to catch up with us? Is it reasonable to abdicate the moral high ground, giving nuclear wannabe’s like Iran a perfect excuse to pursue their nuclear ambitions “full speed ahead?” Is it reasonable to increase the nuclear danger by promoting the resumption of testing by others, and the proliferation of nuclear armed states. I think not.

What would we really gain by building an RRW? Very little! The idea that the weapons in our arsenal must, inevitably, become “unsafe,” or “unreliable” are nonsense. Our weapons are robust, and any enemy assuming the contrary would be making a very unfortunate miscalculation.

In a word, then, the Obama administration has managed to blunder into a good decision on the RRW. Let’s leave it at that and worry about more pressing matters.

Torture: The Liberals, the Conservatives, and the Rabbit People

I, personally, am opposed to torture.  I also consider the notion that water boarding, sleep deprivation, and similar “enhanced interrogation techniques” are not torture absurd.  Whatever one cares to consider it when inflicted in a carefully controlled training situation, water boarding is most definitely torture when inflicted on an enemy not once, but 80, 90 or 100 times, by tormenters who are confident they will not be held to account for their deeds.  Resistance to torture doesn’t have to be a moral decision, just a practical one.  Nations that torture weaken themselves by playing into the hands of their enemies, handing them an effective propaganda tool.  Anyone who was following the European media at the time the Abu Ghraib story broke knows how effective and damaging such propaganda can be.  For democracies, at least, condoning torture carries a high political cost.  The damage it does to the national security of a democracy by allowing its enemies to seize the moral high ground and by eliminating its own moral authority in the world greatly outweighs any plausible advantage that could be gained by it.


Individuals who support torture live in an imaginary world in which the victims are always their enemies, persons certainly guilty of terrorism or worse, regardless of whether they have had a trial or whether there is any plausible evidence against them.  The principles embodied in the American Bill of Rights don’t matter, as long as their precious security is at stake.  In the end, though, that security is a chimera.  Those who believe that torture will only be applied to the “others,” never to themselves, live in a dream world.  In the first place, nations that torture provide their enemies with justification for torture, putting their citizens, and especially their soldiers, at risk.  In a world that condones torture, the idea that the old rule, “What goes around, comes around,” doesn’t apply is not only stupid, it is suicidal.  In a world that condones torture, every individual is a risk.


History has demonstrated that the state is the most effective terrorist, just as it is the most effective killer. It was to protect us from the state as torturer and killer that or forefathers established prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, the assumption of innocence until proven guilty, protections against arbitrary imprisonment, and all the rest of the freedoms we treasure for ourselves, and should treasure for others.  The conservatives in the USA who cheer so loudly for “enhanced interrogation” are wringing their hands at the same time about the expansion of government power and what they perceive as the approach to socialism.  If the state is really in danger of becoming so evil, is it wise to cheer so loudly for torture?  What if the state really does become evil?  What if it occurs to the leaders of that evil state to engage in the wholesale torture of those who, after all, were torture’s most zealous defenders?  What?  You think “It can’t happen here?”  Was the history of the 20th century nothing but a bad dream?  No, it wasn’t a dream.  It was a reality that could happen here quite as well as it happened elsewhere.  In such a world, our genuine security depends on standing by the principles we never should have abandoned in the first place, including rejection of torture.  


Sometimes I can’t even believe we are having this debate. A bunch of religious fanatics gets lucky and kills 3000+ people, and we are suddenly in a “war,” and have to throw all our liberties out the window.  Going on a decade later, we are still at “war,” and anything goes, as long as we can bamboozle ourselves into believing that our precious “security” requires it.  It reminds one of the constantly warring states in Orwell’s “1984.”  I suspect Orwell would have detected a very familiar ring in the arguments being fobbed off on us today to justify this constant state of “war.”  We have over 25,000 firearm deaths every single year in the US, and over 40,000 traffic fatalities. Is anyone suggesting we throw out the Bill of Rights and introduce a police state because of that? Hundreds of thousands have died defending the liberties we are now supposed to casually discard because we are all so terribly threatened by the evil terrorists. What fine Americans we are, what brave defenders of the faith our fathers fought and died for!  One successful attack, and all we can think of is crawling under a rock and bleating about our illusory “security.” One successful attack that in no way threatens our existence as a nation and, suddenly, we are drawing dire parallels with the need to suspend habeus corpus during the Civil War. What wimps we have become, what rabbits!


The right in the US really seems to have taken leave of its collective senses on this issue.  They really seem to believe that the torturers will never turn on them, that they will somehow, against all odds, be immune to the disease they are so blithely promoting.  The idea that the people who are given the authority to apply torture will always be philosopher kings, or, for that matter, are even likely to be capable of distinguishing those in the act of carrying out a nuclear attack from innocent civilians rounded up based on no or faint evidence is nonsense. History has proved it nonsense time after time. Those who condone torture have forgotten or never learned the lessons of history.  Our founding fathers were well aware of those lessons.  They didn’t suffer from our modern delusions about the benevolence and justice of the state as torturer.  That’s why they took the stand they did.  If we abandon their stand in pursuit of a hollow security we might as well give up the fight. We will have become the mirror images of the people we are fighting.


When one looks at the ideological divide in the US today on the matter of torture, one can only shake ones head.  The right openly condones it.  They give Nathan Hale speeches defending it, as if it were some kind of a holy cause.  For them, no one can be truly “patriotic” who opposes it.  For the left, it is just an ideological bludgeon that they find a convenient tool for attacking their enemies.  One hears no reasoned arguments against torture.  Instead, in place of reason one finds nothing but the usual pious posing from the “moral high ground.”    In other words, they oppose torture more or less for the same reasons the Bolsheviks opposed it before 1917; because it is a useful political tool. 

What did she know and when did she know it? The torture Nancy Pelosi “didn’t know about,” as described in the Washington Post, November 23, 2005

The rest of us knew about it in 2005. Isn’t it funny how Nancy is only finding out about it now? An excerpt:

“The first three techniques … involve shaking or striking detainees in an effort to cause pain and fear. The fourth consists of forcing a prisoner to stand, handcuffed and with shackled feet, for up to 40 hours. Then comes the ‘cold cell’: Detainees are held naked in a cell cooled to 50 degrees, and periodically doused with cold water. Last is ‘waterboarding,’ a technique that’s already been widely reported. According to the information supplied to ABC: ‘The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.’ ABC quoted its sources as saying that CIA officers who subjected themselves to waterboarding ‘lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in.’ “

A Nurse Witnesses the Disintegration of the Armies of the Tsar; History in the Raw

Sometimes you really need to look at the source material yourself if you want to understand historical events.  The quality of historians in our day runs from the ridiculous to the sublime, with journalists at the bottom of the list.  I’ve always found their attempts to write “history” more or less worthless because they are determined to make sure the rest of us know who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are.  They insist on turning history into a morality play.  Fortunately, there are good historians out there as well, but none of them are truly objective, and their personal ideologies must inevitably color their work to a greater or lesser extent.  They can point you in the right direction, but, if you really want to approach the truth, you will have to dig for it yourself. 


I had never been able to grasp how one historical event with devastating consequences actually happened.  I refer to the collapse of the Russian Army in World War I.  Historians always seem to describe it tersely.  It happened because this person did that, or the situation at the front changed in this way or that.  It seemed that similar things had happened many times over at different times and places, without setting off the train of events that led to the mass desertion of the Russian armies.  I’ve just read the diary of a simple English nurse, Florence Farmborough, who served at the front with the armies of the Tsar from 1914 through the revolution of February 1917, the collapse of the armies, and the seizure of power of the Bolsheviks.  She brings the actual events into focus better than any professional historian I have ever read.  Let her tell the story in her own words:


Early May, 1917

“Kerensky was taking it into his own hands to bring about drastic reforms in the army.  He had declared that army discipline was too rigid, that the soldiers should be treated in a more liberal, friendly manner by their officers.  As an instance of the new attitude which he desired to see he had abolished the use of the condescending, patronizing ‘thou’, employed to those of inferior rank.  An officer, when addressing the rank-and-file, would now be obliged to use the more polite ‘you’.  This order had, naturally, caused dismay among all officers, for they feared – and not without reason – that it would lessen the authority of officers over soldiers in the ranks.  …It would be the end of discipline.”


11th May, 1917

“The reforms initiated by Kerensky are meeting with little success.  They were intended to create a closer relationship, a more friendly atmosphere; they seem, however, to be doing exactly the reverse.  Strangely enough, it is the soldiers who appear disgruntled; they are moody, even morose, and often astonish their officers by pertness and effrontery.”


13th May, 1917

“And still no Orders come and army officers look at each other blankly and ask the same question:  ‘What, in God’s name, is happening?’  Criticism of Kerensky and of his ruling respecting army reforms becomes more frequent and sharp.  The majority of officers agree that he had overstepped his bounds.  Discipline is tottering in the trenches.”


25th June, 1917


“One battalion captain had sent in a report to the effect that if the Generals would not allow his men to launch an attack soon, he could not answer for the success of the Offensive in his sector of the Front.  When at last his men were told that an advance was about to begin, they had jumped out of their trenches some minutes before the given time.  In most cases, the officers would go first, leading their men.  But there were instances when the officers had met with defiance, soldiers had shown great unwillingness to leave the trenches, and officers had been obliged to beg the men to attack.”


28th June, 1917

“We were told that a komanda (body of troops) was holding a meeting and decided to go and hear what it was all about.  It was a strange, depressing experience.  The speeches of two officers were genial and optimistic; but when we saw the faces of the soldiers, we realized something had gone wrong.  They were sullen and ill-humored.”


29th June, 1917

“…We heard that many soldiers of the 91st Regiment had refused to return to the trenches; some of them had left their regiment and were making their way eastwards towards Russia.  Motors with maxim-guns were being sent after them, with orders to force them to return, or to fire at them on the road.  It was said that certain regiments had refused to take runaways back into their ranks; and one regiment, in reserve and awaiting reinforcements, had refused point blank to accept any new recruits.”


6th July, 1917

“Before dinner, one of our doctors told us that the 90th Regiment has refused to remain in the Front Line and nearly two versts of trenches are completely unguarded.  His voice was thick and unsteady.  ‘What can that mean?’ someone asked.  ‘Mean?’ he repeated heatedly.  ‘Why, any fool can see what that means!  The enemy will occupy the empty trenches, and our troops on either side will be obliged to retreat.”


11 July, 1917

“We saw the Markovtse railway-station and heard that trains were no longer running to Tarnopol.  We met a young doctor, who told us that whole regiments had withdrawn from the trenches.”


12th July, 1917

“Now and then when the soldiers saw us in our open transport-van, they called out and some of their remarks were far from agreeable.  It was the first time in three years of war work that we had met rudeness from our own men; we felt dismayed and humiliated.”


Nurse Farmborough experienced the early effects of the Bolshevik revolution in Moscow, and managed to escape via Vladivostok as the Russian she had known collapsed about her.  Her book includes a great deal more detail about the events of 1917. 



In retrospect, it is quite clear why secret police chief Beria’s men were stationed behind the Red Army’s front line units in World War II, armed with machine guns, ready to shoot deserters and stragglers.  The Communists had been careful students of the effects of Kerensky’s “reforms.”  They were determined to make sure nothing similar would happen the second time around.

Quote for the day: Florence Farmborough, a nurse with the (former) armies of the Tsar, 16th December 1917

“How can I describe all that has happened in these last tragic days?  I feel as though I have been caught up in a mighty whirlpool, battered and buffeted, and yet…I am still myself, still able to walk, talk, eat and sleep.  It is astounding how much a human being can endure without any outward sign of having been broken up into pieces.”

Edward Fitzgerald, Omar Khayyam, and the Rubaiyat

I have been an admirer of the Ruba’iyat for many years, but was never aware that Edward Fitzgerald’s version was substantially different from the original verses by Omar Khayyam and others until I picked up the recent translation by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs.  The original quatrains were meant to stand on their own, whereas Fitzgerald’s poem is much more a unified statement of his own philosophy.  As often happens with poets who catch the fancy of so many lay readers, Fitzgerald has been widely panned by academics and professionals.  Unjustly, I think, because his poem is a concise, clear, and telling attack on the Judeo-Christian-Moslem religions.  In much of the poem, the author dwells on the absurdity of human existence;

      The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon

      Turns Ashes – or it prospers; and anon,

      Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face

      Lighting a little Hour or two – is gone.


However, he also launches a telling, and, in my opinion, unanswerable attack on the notion of eternal punishment in Hell for the paltry sins we commit during our short existence on earth, a belief characteristic of many Christian sects, and of Moslems in general;

Oh, Thou, who didst with Pitfall and with Gin

Beset the Road I was to wander in,

Thou wilt not with Predestination round

Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?


What!  Out of senseless Nothing to provoke

A conscious Something to resent the yoke

Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain

Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke!


What!  from his helpless Creature be repaid

Pure Gold for what he lent us dross-allay’d—

Sue for a Debt we never did contract,

And cannot answer – Oh the sorry trade!


Nay, but for terror of his wrathful Face,

I swear I will not call Injustice Grace,

Not one Good Fellow of the Tavern but

Would kick so poor a Coward from the place

The poem deserves lasting fame for these quatrains, if for nothing else.  Certainly, belief in eternal punishment after death can be of great value to those who derive their livings by imposing on the credulity of their fellow mortals.  Logically, however, it is absurd.