The Epic of Lacplesis

My recent switch to the active Army caused me to undergo some leadership training. One of my fellow trainees was a magnificent Soldier from Latvia. While planning a PT session, I had occasion to check out the national epic of Latvia – Lacplesis. This heroic epic may be of interest to the guests in this Hall, and I found it inspiring. You can read it at Project Gutenberg here (the translation is into assonant verse; if you’re familiar with the Song of Roland it’ll have a familiar feel), or at least part of a later translation here.

Lacplesis – his name means “the bear slayer” – was raised by bears, and himself had a huge pair of hairy, bear-like ears. These ears were to Lacplesis was Samson’s hair was to him – the source of his strength. The epic traces his destiny as discussed by the pagan Latvian gods, then his heroic deeds and death.

Two events especially impressed me. The first was Lacplesis’ combat with the Estonian giant Kalapuisis. The Estonian Army is invading Latvia, and Kalapuisis is also ravaging the countryside (but separately from the army). Lacplesis sends his trusted friend to raise an army against the Estonians, and goes to face the giant himself. Kalapuisis knocks him from his horse, but he fells the giant with a single blow – and then shows mercy. They make a sworn covenant that Latvia and Estonia will never fight again, and that Kalapuisis will instead help to guard both countries against the coming invasion by the Germans.

Unlike Gilgamesh, Lacplesis does not seek out his opponent to win glory for himself – I don’t see any of that in his character – but simply to save his countrymen. And he has the foresight and the strategic sense to think beyond simply killing his enemies. When a deadly enemy is down, you cut his throat or help him to his feet, and sometimes the latter is the best (or the only) course. Lacplesis speaks to me in a way that some heroes of legend do not. This may in part be because the epic was composed in the 19th century and I haven’t read the earlier legends on which it was based – I know the Arthur of Excalibur is more understandable to a modern viewer than is the Arthur of Mallory, and if I knew Tennyson’s version I would doubtless think the same.

The other event that impresses me is the death of Lacplesis. A Latvian traitor who has sold his soul to Satan learns Lacplesis’ weakness through black magic, and gives the information to a German, who picks a witchborn black knight (and confirmed ravager and villain) to make use of it. The knight visits Lacplesis’ hall as a guest, takes part in a tournament, breaks Lacplesis’ sword, and cuts off both his ears – thus robbing him of his superhuman strength. Lacplesis, undaunted, makes an end like Sherlock Holmes’ – he wrestles his enemy over a cliff and into a deep river, where both sink from view. The tale ends tragically, as the Germans then overrun Latvia, but there is hope for the future – Lacplesis can be seen in the river, still striving with the knight, and someday he will prevail and his country will be free (as, indeed, it is today).

Some heroes of legend rely entirely on their god-born powers – and their “heroism” seems to consist mainly of crushing out lesser beings who don’t stand a chance against them. Now I believe in fighting the good fight with every unfair advantage possible; but what Lacplesis understood was that, when all that’s gone and your enemy has the upper hand, the choice still lies with you: to keep fighting or not. And you can see that he had something greater than mere power; he had the heart to fight when everything else was gone.

I commend this heroic tale to all.
The Involunteers:

A new poem by Russ Vaughn of Old War Dogs.

One thing to me rings loud and clear
Through mainstream media sources:
Libs don’t understand, Volunteer,
When it comes to our fighting forces.

Their memories hark to former days,
Dubious deferments due to classes,
Craven cowering in cynical ways,
Just to cover their cowardly asses.

Pony-tailed pundits of treason foregoing,
Now scoff and condemn with derision,
Volunteer warriors, warned and knowing,
Who’ve made a fateful decision,

Foregoing the comforts liberals love,
That very succor to preserve,
A concept Libs are ignorant of:
To reap benefits, one should serve.

Ever fearful, Libs cower in classrooms,
Proclaiming the due of the masses;
On graves of the brave, toxic mushrooms,
Still cravenly covering their asses.

Preaching, protesting, showing their ire,
Cat-box covering all their worst fears,
Cowardly curs afraid of war’s fire,
They’re our nation’s Involunteers.

I know a truth from mankind’s past,
A truth that sure prevails;
Those who fight are those will last,
Throughout all man’s travails.

But those making phony excuses,
As false and fearful disguise,
Will feel history’s worst abuses,
Enslaved by their cowardly lies.

Russ Vaughn

101st and 82d Airborne

Fixed links

Permalinks Finally Fixed:

Now, only several months after it became a problem, our permalinks work again. Thanks to Fuzzy for giving me a tip about what the problem was likely to be; I finally had time to sit and dig through the code.

If anyone reading this knows how to do "if/then/else" statements in webpage code, drop me an email please. I've got a change I want to make to the page to make it easier to recognize the author of a post, but I haven't figured out how to tell the computer to do what I want. :)

Language & Terrorism

Language and Terrorism:

A scholarly article at The Chronicle of Higher Educationmakes the case for calling people names. Well, not just any people:

The reasons fall into five categories.

The first rationale amounts to political correctness, however odd that may ring in regard to terrorism, the most political of all matters on the government's plate. It's the reflexive unwillingness of officials to express moral and political beliefs for fear they'll insult and offend others. Remember Fowler's classic definition of euphemism: "mild or vague or periphrastic expression as a substitute for blunt precision or disagreeable truth."

These days officials win praise for such evasion. In London, Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil-rights group Liberty, observed of Gordon Brown that he "has passed the first test of his administration. He has not played politics with the terror threat and has treated this weekend's events as an operational rather than a political matter."

But if the admirable part of political correctness is that one shouldn't utter unsupportable, reactionary ethnic, gender, or other generalizations, that principle is misapplied in the case of terrorists, who are picked out for condemnation by their acts alone. Aren't "bastards," "scum," and so on precisely the right terms for people who seek to maim and kill presumably innocent others to make a political point?

A second reason for muted language is the notion that not using emotional, judgmental words means one is acting more rationally and efficiently. Here, too, current clichés of proper official behavior encourage word-mincing. New Home Secretary Jacqui Smith won applause for the "calmness and dignity" of her remarks to Parliament after the failed car bombings.

That backslap makes little sense in regard to commentary on terrorists. Are all morally judgmental words "emotive"? Few would think that calling terrorists "wrong" or "immoral" counts as emotive, though branding them "evil" might slip into that category nowadays, on the ground that President Bush gave "evil" a bad name. The step to "cowardly" or "barbarian" strikes far more people as worrisome verbal escalation. What, though, is the logical inference between emotionally strong language by responsible people and irrational action? We don't expect President Bush to make weepy, emotionally upset decisions because he emerges teary-eyed from meetings with American families who've lost loved ones in Iraq. We don't expect religious figures or ordinary people who deliver strong, moving remarks at funerals to make irrational decisions immediately afterward. Why infer such things with politicians?

A third reason, construable as a corollary of the second, is that citizens don't want to see their leaders act emotionally. Hitler's histrionics and Khrushchev's shoe-pounding remain quintessential Bigfoot examples of the political equation that emotional language signals demagoguery. On a different scale, famous moments in American political history, such as Sen. Edward Muskie's alleged crying over attacks on his wife, reinforced a perceived equation between emotion and weakness.

Here one would like to see a poll. Politicians might be surprised by the result.

A fourth reason for morally neutral language about terrorism is fear that emotional, insulting language might make terrorists angrier and more dangerous. An old anecdote about former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir figures on the other side. Once, at an Israeli cabinet meeting, someone reportedly warned that the action contemplated would anger the Palestinians. Shamir supposedly replied, "Are they going to hate us more?" — implying that enemies of Israel had already hit their max in that department, freeing Israel from such consequentialist calculations. A similar logic appears more applicable to terrorists than fear of inciting them to greater ferocity. That aside, fear that insulting or strongly judging terrorists will cause greater terrorism appears to contradict the logic behind emotionless security talk itself — that violence is prevented by tough tactical measures rather than rhetoric. So long as rigorous tactics remain in place during rhetorical upgradings, things should not get worse.

Finally, there is the reason, intuited even by nonexperts on rhetoric, that repeating such language weakens its power. Listening to President Bush denounce terrorists every day as cowards would grow old fast, this thinking goes, as did hearing the mantra that "terrorists hate our freedom." Here, one might nonetheless ask, for what would we be trying to hold language's power in reserve? For another 9/11? A dirty bomb exploded in an American city? Is anything short of slaughtering thousands at a time insufficient for moral outrage? Nonuse of morally strong language arguably saps it of power more than repeated use, making it seem quaint and archaic.
It's interesting that we live in a country in which we often hear our political opponents and fellow Americans called terrible names, but terrorists are normally named "insurgents" or "fighters" or even "activists." The use of the term "terrorist" without scare quotes by an organization like Reuters is cause for note.

A long time ago I remember there was a push from some circles to call Arab terrorists mufsidoon, meaning "evildoer" in Arabic. You see the term now and then, but it never caught on. People adopted "jihadist" instead, falling into just the trap warned against: letting the terrorist be labeled as one doing religious work, performing a religious duty.

The Chronicle suggests that we shouldn't be quite so civilized as mufsidoon anyway: "Young Muslims would have to get used to hearing jihadist heroes described as savages, scum, and uncivilized losers, along with the reasons why. It would intellectually force them, far more than they are forced today, to choose between two visions of the world."

Savages. I like it.