Saturday, December 29, 2012


I have been reading a lot of books about history recently, particularly
specific periods of history which are especially interesting to me.

In other times in my life I read quite a bit of fiction. Initially, it was
American fiction, then British, and then fiction from around the
world in translation. After that, I concentrated on reading poetry,
especially just before and after I began writing poetry myself. There
have also been times when I read biographies, literary criticism. science
fiction, philosophy and books about technology. Those were my changing
interests; I know that each reader has a personal set of interests and a
personal pattern of subjects read at different times in life.

Nonetheless, I seem to have settled on history these days, and specifically
history of the early and middle twentieth century, a time before I was born,
but which was a primary time for my parents and grandparents and their

When I was very young, I read every book I could find about Tsar
Nicholas II and imperial Russia, probably because that was the world both
my parents came (escaped) from by one or two generations. Then I read
about World War I, including the decades which led up to it and the short
interim period following, the time before World War II.

I have always seemingly been able to read very fast, and this has enabled
me to read a great many books and to remember many details in them.
Since I have been able to read a large number of books about a given time
in history, I have concluded that the “facts” and details of history often
depend on the the author of the book, the historian, and his or her attitude
about history itself, the specific subject he or she writes about, and of course,
what is selected to be reported to us the readers.

We all have heard the phrases about “rewriting history,” and the notion itself
is undoubtedly true as we read numerous books about the same time and
place by different authors. As a result of my reading experiences, I have come
to question the “factness” of certain books and essays, and to try to evaluate
the bias or the distortion, if any, of a particular author or historian.

A recent example of “rewriting” history has been the publication of a number
of books about Ulysses S. Grant, preeminent Union Civil War general and
later two-term president of the United States. The commonplace about
Grant used to be that he was a great general, and a heavy drinker, but a
mediocre and ultimately corrupt president. Some recent books and essays
contend that Grant’s public image has been shortchanged, including that
he was a more honest, high-minded and consequential man than previously
judged, especially as president, and despite his undisputed shortcomings,
he was a sincere figure trying to do what was best for his troubled nation in
difficult circumstances.

Another form of “rewriting” history is the speculative historical novel as
perhaps most notably recently practiced by former U.S. house speaker
Newt Gingrich in collaboration with his friend, historian William Fortschen.
Together they have written a number of novels about the Revolutionary
War, the Civil War and World War II, in which the true historic figures speak 
and act, as characters do in traditional novels. In most of these novels Gingrich
and Fortsehen wrote the books as if the outcome of each was the opposite of
what actually did happen, speculating what might have then occurred in
those instances.

Both Gingrich and Fortschen are genuine historians, and base their novels
and speculations on recorded facts, but most serious books about history
are written in a non-fiction non-speculative mode by historians who specialize
in one of more areas of history.

There have always been, as well, so-called “popular” histories written or
ghost-written by celebrity figures and others. These are usually about
historical periods and events which are already well-known and much
written about., Their primary purpose, their authors’ protestations
notwithstanding, is to become bestsellers, make money and capitalize on
or enhance their celebrity. Recent bestseller lists feature some of this kind
 of “popular” history.

The bulk of serious writing about history remains with academic scholars
and historians. The books, for example, I have been recently reading about
the period leading up to World War II in the United States, Great Britain
and the European continent are usually focused on relatively short time
periods within the whole era, specific incidents or battles, a few individual
leaders or generals, or a particular group within the whole population.

The two principal Western figures in this mid-twentieth century story are
American President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston
Churchill. Dogged stereotypes of these two men, their relationship and their
role in this period remain in the minds of most American and British readers,
young and old. Many recent books, however, strive to undo, or alter, these
stereotypes. Mr. Roosevelt, we now learn was unquestionably masterful in
charm and a gifted communicator, but not necessarily the man who brought
his nation out of the Depression, or who heroically saved the world from
Hitlerism, It seems, in fact, that he became quite physically ill as early as
1942-43 (or earlier), and made serious strategic misjudgments subsequently.
Winston Churchill did rally the British people in the gloomy days of the
air blitz against London and other English targets, but he was also a man of
irrational and stubborn strategic thinking and petty habits. Likewise, most of
the top generals and other military leaders around them had overblown egos
and were constantly squabbling. Other allied nation’s leaders, many of whom
ended up in London or Washington, DC were less than noble figures, selfish,
out of touch, and like, for example, General De Gaulle, often delusional. Few
of these high figures come out of recent histories as truly heroic figures.
Their excessive and self-indulgent life styles, especially when the general
populations around them were undergoing so much deprivation, were
commonplace. “Inappropriate” sexual affairs were frantic, often superficial
and blatant. In short, the details of these histories (and I am not necessarily
doubting their accuracy) make it difficult to understand how the outcome of
World War II was successful for the Allied Powers.

On the other hand, should we be at all surprised? History has usually been
dressed and overdressed in such simplistic terms that, aside from a few (usually
heroic or deplorable) instances, students of history receive little or none of the
human qualities of the personages who “make” history.

So why read history at all? The answer is that if the reader can navigate himself
and herself through the bias and verbiage of most historians and written history,
there remains the wonder and charm of great stories of humanity and its course
through time.. Although absolute veracity about historical figures and events is
almost always elusive, and apparently subject to constant reinterpretation,
persons do exist and events do happen. Deciphering who those persons really
were and what actually happened is not, in the end, the sole practice of
professional historians, but more accurately and importantly, the challenge and
the quest of any serious reader of history.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: White Tea (a poem)

by Barry Casselman
Most of the first news is mistaken,
and what comes after, is misunderstood.
So when these events are apparently concluded,
we have layers of contrary errors, odd jokes
of natural confusion, hearsay, false presciences,
and contradictions of what we had accepted as true
as a cold day we think is true to us,
as is a good meal, as is fatigue.

The next news is more upsetting
because it is more likely to be true,
although by now we doubt anything can be true
because what we had accepted over some time,
perhaps many months, probably many years, is now not at all true.
Then we are without anything decisive to take its place,
not even something to take its place with any assurance
that it might endure months or years
like the memory of the flavors in white tea.

After that, the news accumulates like canned food in a cupboard,
unsharpened pencils in a box on a desk, videotapes of family parties
in which at least one parent no longer attends, or ever speaks again in anger.

If there is any news beyond this, we try to fashion it
into a piteous song or a dry poem or, if we are truly ambitious,
we make it into a story about the story of our new disappointments,
our private losses, our reluctance to replace what has passed,
the agony of replacing it because we know that more news will come
to overturn even what we have not yet accepted.

There is only so much we can allow ourselves to delay
as the world travels around us with war and peace,
and war again and peace again, and again those afternoons and mornings,
the spring’s sun, some nights of so much pleasure,
glass cups exhaling white tea.

Copyright (c) 2003, 2012 by Barry Casselman     All rights reserved.

Friday, December 21, 2012


There is a sensation in the world media today about an alleged Mayan
prophecy that the world will somehow end imminently. A few
hysterics actually believe this, but of course, there are always a few of
these types who carry signs, year in and year out, declaring “The End
Is Near!” They so far have a perfect record of being wrong.

There was some kind of catastrophe, however, which wiped out much
of the ancient Mayan civilization that had dominated Central America
for many centuries. That occurred approximately in 1200 A.D. when rather
suddenly millions of Mayans “disaappeared,” and their lavish culture
ended. Ruins of that civilization survive, but there were few clues left to
tell us what happened to them.This mystery, like the sudden disappearance
of the dinosaur in prehistoric times has been now attributed to natural
disaster. A large meteor landing in what is now the Gulf of Mexico is
believed to be the cause of the sudden disappearance of dinosaurs. In the
case of the Mayans, scientists have determined that a drastic climate
change in the Atlantic Ocean near Central America brought on an extreme
drought that caused most Mayans to die of thirst and hunger.

But not all the Mayans perished. Today, several million Mayans live in
Guatemala, with smaller numbers living in southern Mexico, Honduras,
and neighboring Central American countries. Several thousand live in
southern California, having fled from persecution more than a century
ago in their indigenous homeland. Many modern Mayans still live
together in their own communities, observing ancient customs and religious
practices, and speaking some of the various Mayan languages. Many of
them are tradesmen and small businessmen. Apparently, few if any of them
believe  in the doomsday legend of their ancient calendar. Like so many
indigenous peoples the world over, they are still often persecuted and
shunted aside by contemporary cultures and governments.

The hysterical dilettantes elsewhere in the world, indulging in their doomsday
fantasies, are being paid some sensational attention by the usual suspects in
the world media. When the “momentous” date passes unfulfilled, as it will,
the media will turn its attention to other fantasies, and the surviving Mayans
among us will continue to be ignored.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

Friday, December 14, 2012


Much is being made of the recent actions by the Michigan legislature,
and signed into law by the state’s governor, which established this
northern, usually liberal, area as the 24th in the nation to be a
right-to-work state. As a long-time center for organized labor and
pro-union issues, this came as a surprise to some. But as reports from
Michigan have it, this controversial action came about not because
there is a groundswell of anti-union sentiment in Michigan. It occurred,
at least in part, because the head of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in
Detroit tried to put union rights in the state constitution. This provoked
Governor Rick Snyder, who up to now has been less likely to take
strong conservative actions in his state (as have many other Republican
governors in the nation, including Mitch Daniels (Indiana), John Kasich
(Ohio), Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Bob McDonnell (Virginia), Nikki Haley
(South Carolina), Chris Christie (New Jersey), Susana Martinez (New
Mexico), Bobb Jindal (Lousiana) and Rick Scott (Florida). The UAW
chief evidently went too far, and the cost to his union and to organized
labor has been high. A similar action took place in Wisconsin recently
when union demands became too high.

Going too far is not, however, only a practice of unions and those on the
left. In the national elections just held, a generally close election which
returned a Democratic president to office, kept his Democratic party in
control of the U.S. senate, but kept the Republicans in the majority in the
U.S. house, and in control of most state legislatures, there was at least one
state in which the results reversed the previous election decisively. That
was Minnesota where the GOP had won control of the state house and
senate by a surprising margin in 2010, and almost won the governorship.
In 2012, however, the GOP leaders in the state legislature went along with
their very conservative wing in placing two constitutional amendments on
the ballot. One was on voter ID, and the other was a so-called marriage
amendment. The former was popular, and was expected to pass, but the
latter was clearly going too far for the Minnesota voter sensibility, and the
Democrats (in this state called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party or
DFL) were able to successfully mobilize their voters around these
amendments. Both failed on election day, and several GOP legislators
lost their re-election.

In Missouri and Indiana, two GOP U.S. senate candidates went too far
in explaining their positions on abortion, and lost seats they should have
easily won.

When each national political party, and their state parties, insist on going
too far on political and social issues, they risk the wrath of voters. There
are voices on the left and right today who call for, even demand, some of
these controversial issues be enacted into law. I suggest the outcome will
be the same in future elections if they do,

In Minnesota, again, party officials and legislators face an issue they have
been putting off for decades, but which now threatens the success of each
party in the future. Minnesota is one of the few remaining states which uses
a precinct caucus system in the process of nominating its candidates.
Attendance at these caucuses is exceedingly low, usually 1 or 2% of eligible
voters, but the system of endorsements has dominated candidate nominations
and party affairs. Activists on the left and right have undemocratically imposed
themselves on more centrist liberal and conservative majorities in each party,
and caused abnormal election results for decades. In 2012 the victim in
Minnesota was the Republican Party, but in previous cycle, the caucus system
has hurt the DFL. Interestingly, the leadership of both parties now
agree on moving up the primary elections from August to June (the primary
had been in September). DFL Governor Mark Dayton has long been an
outspoken critic of the old endorsement system. In fact, he upset the
DFL-endorsed candidate in 2010 to win his party’s nomination. Having been
burned one time too often, many GOP leaders now agree it is time to do
something about the dysfunctional Minnesota system. Hanging over their
heads is the fact that the 2012 caucuses saw a takeover of the party by a tiny
Ron Paul faction which, in turn, then nominated a very weak candidate for the
US. senate seat in that election. In 2013, with bipartisan support, the return to
a primary system could happen. If not, look for more bizarre election results
in the Gopher State.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.   All rights reserved.

Monday, December 10, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The New Hundred Years War (and counting)

 As we approach the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I
(July, 2014), we can consider one more time how this modern worldwide
conflict and its aftermath continues to insinuate itself into contemporary life
on our planet, and how, in spite of the famous armistice signed at the 11th
minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, that war
has not ever really ended.

The inability of the victors, the U.S., Great Britain, France and the other
allied nations, to create adhesive and lasting stability at its 1919 Paris
Peace Conference has caused immense consequences ever since. Not
only did this failure lead to another and even larger war merely 21 years
later, it led rather directly to most of the international conflicts which
dominate human civilization today.

It was not World War II that created the Soviet Union and the international
communist movement. It was World War I. Nicholas II, a superficial but
autocratic and cruel tsar, allowed himself to be duped to bring the vast but
undeveloped Russian empire into the conflict, a move which only gave
excuse to the aggressive and monomaniacal German kaiser to mobilize
with his Austro-Hungarian allies. These Central Powers forced the hand
of the British and French governments to join in against them. With defeat
on the battlefield and starvation at home, the totalitarian Russian kingdom
was soon overthrown by a small but determined totalitarian Soviet state

The most significant casualty of the aftermath of World War I perhaps was
the Weimar republic of Germany which could not overcome the reparations
conditions of the Paris treaty. nor deal with its new democratic institutions
in a period of economic and political distress. This enabled the rise of a
pathological criminal fringe group to power, a group whose fascist leader
took Germany, the rest of Europe, and Asia soon into  the carnage of
World War II.

Just as World War I redesigned the map of Europe and Africa, so did World
War II, adding Asia to its cartographical labors. Attempting  to protect itself
from what it believed would be another western European incursion, Soviet
Russia, at the insistence of its dictator Joseph Stalin, overran most of the
formerly sovereign nations of eastern Europe, and installed its own puppet
regimes. At the same time, international communism declared a Cold War
against the world’s democracies, and this conflict lasted from 1946 until
1990 when the Soviet regime collapsed. In this same period, the world’s
remaining colonial powers, including France, Britain, Belgium and the
Netherlands, lost or gave up control of their colonial territories in Africa,
Asia and South America (as had imperial Germany, Spain and Portugal
lost their colonial possessions in the 19th and early 20th centuries), and a
large number of new (and in many cases, small) independent states were
created, most of them economically undeveloped, non-viable and fragile
with conflicting populations artificially thrown together.

The period between 1918 and 1995 was a golden age for mapmakers and
the cartography business because so many nations appeared, disappeared,
and reappeared; and borders were so often drawn, redrawn, and redrawn

In the fury of nationalisms, religious passions, and the discovery of
valuable natural resources all over the world in the past 100 years, it has
been forgotten by nearly everyone that the origin of today’s conflicts
began when a few pistol shots were aimed at an open carriage in downtown
Sarajevo, Serbia, and threw the whole world irreversibly into an endless and
violent age. The carriage driver had accidentally had taken a wrong turn,
exposing the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne to an assassin. and the
violent conflicts that followed have not yet, almost a century later, been

The details of all of this properly require one or more long books, and
countless books have already been written on World War I and its origins,
but I want to focus  here on just one consequence that has, like an open sore,
persisted and grown to be one of the world’s most damaging wounds.
That consequence is the Middle East.

Depending on who is examining the history of this region, the modern and
seemingly perpetual crisis of the Middle East had its origins at different

The oldest narrative, of course, begins in the Judeo-Christian Old
Testament bible when, after their forced diaspora from the ancient land
of Israel in the first century, the Jewish populations were dispersed all
over the world, first sailing along the Mediterranean to both early
southern European and northern Arab ports. From these initial
settlements, the Jews emigrated throughout Europe and Asia, and
from there to North and South America. After almost two thousand
years of persecution in this diaspora, however, a return to the Jewish
homeland became increasingly an urgent component of Jewish religious
observance and political practice in the late 19th century.. A Zionist
movement formally began in 1897, and soon its leaders obtained a
commitment from Great Britain, the victorious World War I power with
the mandate to rule temporarily the territory of Palestine, to create a
Jewish state. The United Nations, an organization of most of the
then-established nations on earth, formally recognized a partition of
Palestine to enable this state in 1947,  a partition plan intended to have
this tiny land divided between Arabs and Jews.

Other narratives assert different historical claims on the relatively tiny
area of land which is today the State of Israel.

Although some Jews had settled back into Palestine for hundreds of years
before the creation of the state of Israel, many Moslem and Christian Arabs
had settled there, too. Until the 20th century there was no Arab state. Most
of the these territories were controlled either by the Ottoman Empire ruled
by a Moslem caliph, or by European colonial powers. In the 1919 Paris
Peace Treaty, France and Great Britain divided the mandate over the Middle
East region, with France receiving Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Syria, and Great
Britain received Palestine. In the area now known as Saudi Arabia, the
largest Arab tribe was given sovereignty under a king and his family.
Similarly, Egypt was given its independence under a monarchy
in 1922, Monarchies were also re-established or set up in Persia, Iraq,
Syria, Libya and Trans-Jordan.

Soon after new borders were set in the Middle East following 1919, vast
oil fields in Persia and adjoining areas became critically important. This
was due to a decision by the British navy, then the most powerful maritime
force in the world, to use oil instead of coal to power their ships. (Curiously,
it was as First Sea Lord that Winston Churchill, then a young man,
made this momentous decision.) At the same time, the mass production
of automobiles was first taking place in the United States, and the airplane
was beginning to emerge as a major military and domestic form of
transportation. Oil fields had only been first discovered in 1839 in
Titusville in northwestern Pennsylvania near the lake port of Erie, but its
strategic and massive use in the evolving industrial revolution only became
clear in the early 20th century. British, American and continental European
investors moved quickly to exploit the Middle Eastern oil reserves, and as
the various nations created by the Versailles treaty increased their
sovereignty over decades, the tremendous economic wealth created by oil
quickly transformed this impoverished desert region into an economic

After World War II, the nations which had oil reserves, i.e., Persia (now Iran),
Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the various Gulf States increasingly asserted their
leverage over the commodity, culminating in a huge advance in oil prices
worldwide, even as new reserves were found in Venezuela, Mexico, Norway,
Russia, Scotland,  Brazil, Nigeria, Alaska,, Indonesia and several offshore
areas around the world. Employing the enormous economic receipts from the
sale of oil, Iran and Iraq built huge military forces and bought a great deal of
military aircraft, tanks, missiles and other weaponry. Allied with non-oil
producing states such as Jordan and Lebanon, and with Syria, a relatively
minor producer of oil, these nations became totalitarian states turning their
aggression not only towards Israel, but often against each other. Libya,
Tunisia, and Algeria, oil-producing nations  also became totalitarian Arab
states which expelled or forced out their substantial Jewish populations that
had lived peaceably in these nations for about 500 years, and they also united
in a conflict against Israel, as did Saudi Arabia, then the largest oil producer in
the Middle East. Egypt, the largest Arab state, provided much of the military
forces in two Arab Wars against Israel in 1967 and 1973 before a
U.S.-engineered truce was put into effect that included substantial foreign aid
from the U.S. to Egypt. The anti-Israel attitudes were perhaps most virulent in
Syria and Iraq where their modern ruling Ba’ath Parties had been founded in
the early 1940s when Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels through his agents created
them after the  Germans, who had just defeated the democratic French
government and had inherited their territories, moved into the Middle East.
The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a virulent anti-Semite, spent the war years in
Berlin as a friend and follower of Adolph Hitler, and when he returned to
Palestine after the war, led the efforts to prevent the partition of Palestine.
After the United Nations voted for the partition, he became one of the leaders
of the Arab forces which attempted to overtake Palestine and drive out its
Jewish settlers. This effort failed, but Israel’s Middle Eastern neighbors became
permanent enemies, and Israel was a pariah in its own neighborhood.

All of this is well-known and wearyingly controversial, but my point is that the
conflicts of the Middle East had their modern origins not in World War II,
Joseph Goebbels notwithstanding, but in World War I and its aftermath when
the victorious European powers, especially Great Britain and France, ignoring
commitments and promises made before and during World War I, created a
new artificial map of the Middle East to placate their own and favored
Middle Eastern interests and parties. British leaders particularly made
commitments to Jewish and Arab leaders before and during World War I that
could not be kept after the war.

The Middle East is only one region of the continual conflict and political
violence which resulted from World War I, and its murderous offspring of
World War II, that is implicated in the present day. Conflicts within the
European Union, in the Balkans, in Africa, in southeast Asia, in Russia, in
U.S. foreign policy, and elsewhere can be traced to the “Great War.” begun
almost a century ago.

The first Hundred Years War took place from 1337 and 1453 in Europe. The
second Hundred Years War (1914 to  ???) is still going on with no end in sight.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.