I Guess it Makes Me Smile

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A couple of weeks ago, I was watching an interview with Joey Cape, lead singer for the band Lagwagon (see below). Watch it yourself. In it, he is discussing how he was touring with the bank Blink-182 at the time when the made the transition from obscure Southern California skate-punk band to national radio-rock stardom. He is describing how, just hearing the song Dammit, he knew thank Blink had something big going on.

As he tries to adequately describe the experience, he twice talks about when he heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. As I watched the interview this, in particular, resonated with me.

People often talk about that one event that sticks vividly in their memory. They remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when [X] happened. Growing up, the most common reference point was when President Kennedy was shot. I’m not old enough to have that memory. A more common one for the younger generations is the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. I actually do remember exactly where I was when that attack occurred, but it doesn’t make for a good case in point. I was in Lower Manhattan within sight* of the the World Trade Center, so of course I remember being there.

So while I’m not sure I share a memory with “my generation,” I do seem to share an experience with my fellow music enthusiasts. You see, I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time. This is remarkable because I was driving when I heard it – commuting to work (not in Manhattan). Yet, I can tell you exactly where I was on the road when that song came on. When I listen to Joey Cape speak, I can feel from him that same level of impact that I had when I heard** the song.

How do I know all this? Because I remember when it came out.

I might have been content to let the subject lie, but then the other day I saw a new quarantine episode from Rick Beato, who does his  What Makes This Song Great videos. Immediately, I could see he was referring to a similar experience, not just for himself, but as expressed by others in the music industry. The entire 22 minutes of video is probably worth watching as, in fact, he does explain much of what makes Smells Like Teen Spirit a song that, as Rick says, “changed the course of rock music… really of music in general.” OK, that last part may be overkill, but we know what he means.

Speaking of knowing what people mean and what they don’t mean, Beato repeatedly addresses an imagined argument with his viewing audience about Kurt not knowing what he was doing. It’s a discussion that I’m sure rages across the internets, but one that I’ve never seen nor participated in. I happen to agree with Beato. It doesn’t matter if Kurt understood what he was doing, what mattered is that he did it. What matters is that we understand what he was doing.

While writing this post, I just discovered one more little bit of lore surrounding this song. It was many, many years after I knew the song and knew it well that I heard the story of where the title came from. In fact it was, coincidentally, around the time I had finally*** seen the music video. Kathleen Hanna had written “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on Kurt’s wall. It was a jab at Kathleen’s bandmate and Kurt’s girlfriend, who wore the Mennen-branded deodorant.

Up until that point I, frankly, hadn’t given that much thought to the title. Perhaps like Kurt himself, I thought was some kind of revolutionary slogan. Upon being reminded of the reference (and I had heard/seen Teen Spirit commercials, so I probably should have caught the allusion), it occurred to me how brilliant the title is. Here is this crowd of angry, revolutionary teens (and now, finally, I’m picturing the assembly from the music video) who smell, not of blood, sweat, and tears, but of the perfumed deodorant marketed to them by their corporate masters. How bitingly cynical.

Yet Kurt claims he didn’t, himself, get the reference until months after the Smells Like Teen Spirit single had been released. But does it even matter what Kurt knew or what he intended? Do we care if, to him, it was just another song about Toby Vail?

Oh well, whatever, never mind.

*I didn’t watch the aircraft impact the tower. I was inside a building and where I sat wasn’t near the window. I had to get up and walk across the floor to see the towers.

**I was about to type “the opening chords.” But it wasn’t the opening chords; not that first time. I don’t think the full impact of the song hit me until about half-way through and it probably took the ending to seal the deal. I’m going to guess that the radio station hyped up the “new song” there were going to play that morning, giving me motive to pay attention from the beginning. Rick Beato is right. That “a denial” from the end might be the most brilliant part of the song. Even how brilliant I never fully appreciated until I heard the isolated vocals. Back to the first time I heard the song, though, I thought he was saying “without a tie on.” That misinterpretation has stuck with me for years.

***Unlike several commentators, who cite their viewing of the video as the “moment” they were moved by Smells Like Teen Spirit, I never did see the video when it was popular. At the time, I was living on a shoestring budget and didn’t have cable TV. It would be years and years before I finally saw a reference to this “amazing” video and then sought it out.

Taking Bank

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The TOAW scenario for the war in the West Bank provides an overview of the fighting the meshes very well with the narrative from Chaim Herzog’s The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East. I suspect that a key reason for that is that good sources for tactical details may be a little thin on the ground and that the scenario is sourced, to a large extent, from the very text that I am reading.

This my fifth in a series of posts on the Six-Day War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

 

While it is authored by a different person, this West Bank scenario makes a fine accompaniment to the Sinai front scenario which I had played earlier. I’m being a little glib about the “single source” for scenario development. He explains that this scenario is originally based on the 1977 Mark Herman board game The Battle for Jerusalem 1967. However, the notes also cite a number of sources used to update using information that has become available in the 30 years since the board game’s publication. Arab-Israeli warfare stands in contrast to American engagements, like Vietnam, where there is extensive written detail from both the military and the memoirs of veterans.

Coinciding with reality, the Jordanians are considerably easier to deal with than the Egyptians were. In Sinai 67, early tactical achievements were necessary to demoralize the Egyptians and force them to withdraw. Without that historical advantage, it becomes very difficult to beat the scenario. In West Bank 67, although there are a few challenging fights here and there, it is relatively easy to steadily force Jordan from the West Bank. The game makes clear that key element in the Israeli victory was the mastery of the air. Interdiction prevents Jordan and Iraqi reinforcements from coming into play and limits the ability of Jordan to maneuver defensively.

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Heavy fighting in Jerusalem’s Old City.

I’ll highlight a couple more remarkable features of this scenario. The design is more “zoomed in”  than what seems “normal” to me. Comparing West Bank 67 with Sinai 67, the map scale is the same for both, but the unit “counters” are a level finer grained. Whereas in the Sinai, we mostly maneuvered at the battalion level, in the West Bank we move individual companies. Comparing with the Vietnam Combat Operations series and its more encompassing map (2.5 km versus 4 km), the unit scale differential is also similar. This may not seem like a big deal, but when you see a recon unit with only 3 vehicles total, it doesn’t feel like a typical TOAW game. Compare also with the Middle East ’67, where the map is zoomed in (1.6 km / 1 mile) but the unit representation is larger.

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A tank company survives the war intact.

Another impression is that West Bank 67 gets the dynamics of the war about right. Even as the scenario came to an end, Israel retained her fighting power. In other words, the campaign didn’t just turn into a battle of attrition. Israeli units are capable of completely annihilating their counterparts while surviving relatively unscathed. This is contrast to most TOAW scenario as well as scenarios from other engines. The downside to this is it seemed almost impossible not to achieve a decisive victory. Both the scenario notes and the victory screen make it clear that Jordan will be crushed. Even with a decisive victory, you have simply matched the performance of the Israeli forces in the Six Day War.

Living in Each Other’s Paranoia

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I’m watching Mr. Robot. It’s been a long-term project since I mostly wait for the seasons to appear on streaming. These days, I’m slowly making my way through Season 3. I’ve just watched the episode (eps3.7_dont-delete-me.ko, fwiw) which takes place on Back to the Future day (October 20th, 2015) and then eps3.8_stage3.torrent.

Episode 3.7 originally played on cable the week after Thanksgiving in 2017, but its alternate reality timeline is even further in the past. For example, the Season 3 storyline features early activity from the 2016 election while we, the audience, already know the outcome. The scary thing, though, is that it does actually feel prescient regarding not the 2016 election, but events over the past few months. Mr. Robot‘s on-screen world is just a little to close to reality for comfort. Worse yet, it seems a plausible near-future from today.

It’s not that everything maps literally. Rather, I’m watching one obvious extension of today’s circumstances and it becomes hard to remember that this was filmed three years ago. The scenes of depopulated streets and riders on the subways wearing masks fit what I’d expect to see in New York City these days. Granted that martial law and soldiers in the streets isn’t quite reality, but it feels like an easy extrapolation.

In Episode 3.8, a character uses her Alexa to ask for the daily COVID-19 5/9 update and then follows up for a request for John Prine on shuffle play. Really, really eerie stuff.

And while I normally don’t find myself agreeing with Elliot, he was spot on that The Martian wasn’t all that great.

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Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

The Mill

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I only know of Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae because it happened to be available from my public library at a time when was searching for something different to read. Given my particular interests, you’d think this would be a book, or at least an author, that I’d know all about.

Before he wrote Gates of Fire, Pressfield wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance: A Novel of Golf and the Game of Life. The title became widely know after Robert Redford directed a film based on the novel five years after its publication. Staring Will Smith, Matt Damon, and Charlize Theron, it was high profile enough to catch one’s attention even if you’d never heard of the book, liked golf, or even thought the film was passably enough done to be worth seeing. Gates of Fire was Pressfield’s next novel, coming three years after his first. After Gates of Fire, Pressfield wrote a dozen-plus other titles, many of which would appear to be well worth my time.

From Wikipedia and other blurbs I have learned that the book is required reading at the Army and Naval academies as well as sitting on the recommended reading list for Marines. It also appears to be popular among active duty soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. In some ways, the book simply retells for the modern reader a story that Western Civilization has told itself for almost 2,500 years now. At its most basic, the story of Thermopylae that of the fundamental superiority of a free, individualistic society over collectivism. It is also the explanation of how free individuals can, together, serve the greater good.

Reading the story also reminded me a few of the historical facts that run counter to popular conceptions of the battle and its importance. The seven days (four, while the Persian prepared for their attack, and three of actual battle) were not critical in any strategic sense. Greek victory would materialize slowly over the year that followed and a few days delay in the Persian march was probably irrelevant*. The book also mentions the simultaneous naval battle, the Battle of Artemisium. Overshadowed by the heroics of the Spartan’s 300 infantry soldiers is the naval delaying action which took place nearby**.

The key to Pressfield’s success as well as his limitations is that this historical fiction is, by necessity, extremely speculative. While Pressfield weaves the historical record into his own story, his level of detail is well beyond not only the historical record but what also can be plausibly reconstructed. In reconstructing his story, he apparently draws from a mix of sources well outside*** the period portrayed. I’ve frequently been rather kind to period movies that get sloppy with historical facts as an exciting film or TV show prompts a curiosity for the said facts. When it comes to books, though, we probably hold them to a higher standard. Can we forgive Pressfield? We can if we acknowlege that maybe the book isn’t to be about the Battle of Thermopylae per se. At least not primarily.

So if Pressfield’s book is not an account of the battle, what is it? I would say it’s more about the fundamental cultural value that the Spartans’ stand represents. Greek’s, almost immediately, began use the story of the Spartan stand to help bolster themselves in the war against the Persians. Variations on the story have helped to define the character of Western Civilization ever since. Pressfield’s telling, however, is specifically aimed at today’s society and, perhaps, today’s warrior.

The personality and language of the main characters in Gates of Fire are just archaic enough so that we can identify them as not-us, but still familiar enough to the modern soldier or officer so as to be easily identified with. Similarly, the descriptions of military training and actions may be historically suspect, but they are meant to connect with modern tactics and training in an identifiable way. It is this that makes Gates of Fire such a success. It articulates for us what it means to be free and yet to serve our country. It explains why we fight, in a way that has defined our culture for 2,500 years. It explains why the best among us with rather die than not live free.

In that, it has become political. Maybe not so much in 1998, when the book was first published. But today – a time when everything must cause one to take sides – I can only imagine the controversy. By 2007, when the film 300 came out, some of the criticism and controversy was certainly steeped in politics and political correctness. Themes shared with Gates of Fire (plus some controversies of it’s own) brewed up debate over what, on its face, seemed to be a conversion of a legend to a modern comic book (excuse me, graphic novel) style. One commenter I happen across referred to the the Frank Miller (the book version of the comic was also 1998) as “crypto-fascist.” What does that even mean?****

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“They drew their sterns together in the middle,” said Herodotus.

With the 300 (film) tie-in video game being perhaps a case in point*****, the Battle of Thermopylae does not lend itself to gaming. Two-to-three days of attrition followed by a slaughter, with no hope for anything but a loss – this doesn’t sound like a recipe for fun. The sea complement to Leonidas’ stand, the Battle of Artemisium, does by contrast provide a fair fight and happens to be one of the historical battles of Mare Nostrvm. In the water, the Greeks and Persians fought a relatively evenly-matched battle over three days. In the end, the Greek’s lesser number made them more susceptible to attrition losses and they retreated, living to fight another day at Salamis.

The initial setup of the scenario has the Greek forces arrayed in circles. The quote (below the screenshot) has been interpreted to mean that the Greek fleet arrayed in a giant circle to counter the superior size of the Persian fleet. However, with estimates for the number of Greek ships over 250, the logistics of such a circle would make this formation unlikely. The Mare Nostrvm scenario, instead, imagines a set of smaller circles. Another interpretation (Wikipedia credits Lazenby’s The Defence of Greece 490–479 BC with the insight) suggests that the Greeks formed a crescent so as to prevent the Persians from flanking their shorter battle line. No matter how you slice it, the scenario is only a subset of the actual battle. The number of ships is a fraction of those that fought in the Battle of Artemisium and the scenario is but a single engagement, not three days of fighting.

That said, I got to experience some gaming pleasure to go along with my read, which is really my goal. Completing Artemisium, in the Mare Nostrvm sequence, is a prerequisite to unlocking Salamis, which I’ll want to do if I’m going to try to relive the Greek victory over the Xerxes. It would take another year, but the Greeks ultimately proved unconquerable to the Persian Empire. The Persian strategy would change from one of military subdual to intervention through internal politics. Decades later, Philip II would model his “Hellenic Alliance” on the force that defeated Xerxes, an Alliance that Alexander would lead to conquer the Persian Empire.

*A common version of the tale is that Leonidas was tasked with holding the narrow pass at Thermopylae until a larger, pan-Greek army (including the full muster of the Spartans) could be assembled. After two days of fighting, he learns that relief will not be coming and yet elects to fight for one more day with no hope of victory. Pressfield has the entire Persian force aware that there was never any intention to reinforce the vanguard. Instead, Leonidas delivers a speech which explains what the Greeks will gain from making a hopeless stand.

**How nearby? Pressfield has his Greeks actually seeing the dead from the naval battle. Were the conflicts really that close to each other?

***For example, some of his information appears to be clearly taken from battles occurring well after Thermopylae. One analysis I read suggests that a substantial portion of his detail came from Thucydides, who wrote about the Spartans several generations into the future. Evidence that much changed in the interim.

****I know what the term means. It just seems absurd to invest such gravitas in pop culture. Again, though, this seems to be the shape that our world has taken.

*****I actually have the games Spartan and Gates of Troy, a game and expansion that interact in some way I no longer remember. I can see the CDs as I sit here typing. I know that Spartan has a Thermopylae scenario for it. I’m vaguely tempted to reinstall and re-experience gaming circa 2004, but I’ll hold off (for now).

The Grind

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This is the sixty-fourth in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series or go back to the master post.

I’m almost certain I watched Hamburger Hill sometime around the time it came out (1987). I vaguely recall not liking it, although I can’t say I remember anything else about it. Within the last six months or so, happened across some video clips from it (I was perusing a best movies of the Vietnam War list) and wondered if I shouldn’t watch it again. Or for the first time if, perhaps, I hadn’t watched it already. It then took a slot on my “to watch” list.

When I found out it, this past weekend, that was set to be removed from Netflix in the middle of May, I decided that the time had come to give it a watch. This despite the fact that I’ve not been watching much TV recently and despite the fact that the film, although gone from Netflix, remains on Amazon’s included-with-Prime streaming.

It seems that, at the time it came out, the film was overshadowed by several of “the big” Vietnam War films that released just before or at the same time. Hamburger Hill debuted some 8-9 months after Platoon‘s release. It then shared the summer audience with Full Metal Jacket. A few months after that, Good Morning Vietnam was added to the competition. To lend support to the idea that this was a genuinely good film that was overshadowed by its bigger-budget brethren is a (presently) 100% tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes.

But as I watch the film (or watch it again – I still can’t be sure), a number of things bother me. Part of the problem is that the likes of We Were Soldiers has raised the bar for what I expect from a war movie. Yet even evaluated from the perspective of the late 1980s, I don’t think this is in the same ballpark as Full Metal Jacket or Platoon.

My very first impression how much the actors reflect the look and mannerisms 80s, not the 60s. It has always been a problem and probably always will be, but failing to get the period right in your period piece tends to foreshadow other quality issues. It also mean that, throughout the remainder of the film, I have a hard time telling the supporting actors one from the other.

The focus of a film is on a single squad which, as the events of the film begin, is a mix of veterans and replacements. To start, the squad is being extracted from a firefight, perhaps a patrol gone wrong. We later find out that this nasty fight takes place in the region to which they are to ultimately return for the titular battle. The squad leader is played by Dylan McDermott* in what I would call the “lead role.” It is also his first credited film appearance. Strangely, Netflix doesn’t credit him as one of the “top” credits, despite his obviously key part. Amazon does, as does the “Blue Ray” disc version of the film. Odd.

While we, the audience, tries to figure out who these guys are and what they are up to, the movie seems want to run us through all the war-movie tropes. The Lieutenant / Platoon Leader is incompetent and the platoon is run by the Platoon Sergeant. There’s the draftees versus volunteers conflict (with a little anti-war and anti-anti-war politics thrown in for good measure). A nasty, friendly fire incident produces a gut-wrenching scene. It’s as if the writers wanted to take all the “issues” of the time and make sure each got their place within the film. One significant must-include for a 1969 period piece is the civil rights conflict. We are treated to repeated eruptions of racial tension in the mixed-race platoon. In this, that 80s look really confuses the story. There is an odd scene where the (black) medic teaches the new (white) recruits how to brush their teeth. The implication is that the whites are unsophisticated “rednecks,” perhaps in contrast to the urban (and urbane?) blacks. Yet, all the white boys looks suspiciously like 80s yuppies**.

The portrayal of battle itself also come off pretty flat. This may be par for the course for 1987. We’re still in the middle of that transition from the likes of Force 10 From Navarone to Saving Private Ryan in terms of combat realism. Gun handling is a mixed bag and nearly everyone fires incessantly on full-automatic from a single, 10-round magazine. The squad prefers to move around in a densely-packed group, and although here and there a thought is given to enemy location and flanks, it’s mostly a very simple and simplistic representation of the battlefield.

We rarely see the whole platoon together in a scene and rarer still the shots bring in the rest of the company. With that, there seems to be little consideration as to the greater tactical plan. One might argue this is intentional. Like the individual infantryman, the viewers are not privy to any overarching plan and we may even suspect that there isn’t one. Thus having combat scenes be confusing and disconnected is a feature, not a bug. Still, it seems like the scenes were put together, not with a temporal and geographic narrative in mind, but to serve the visual story. “Let’s have two intense combat scenes with an intervening pause for quiet reflection.” I, for one, think the movie could have held together much better if the directory tried to keep the battle itself coherent.

My perceived deficit in authenticity is not for lack of trying. Director John Irvin, himself, had made a documentary in Vietnam during the war (about war photographers) and strove for accuracy. Writer James Carabatsos served in combat in the Vietnam war and he specifically wanted to counter the non-realism found in films like Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter. I’ve read that the film was extensively researched and praise from the Veteran community often focuses on its realism. I guess it is all relative.

One final benefit to Netflix pulling this film just when they did is that I watched it over the same days as the actual battle, 51 years after the fact. It’s a coincidence attributable to dumb luck, but one that I appreciate nonetheless.

*Looking over McDermott’s acting credits, I feel like I’ve seen him in a lot more films and/or television than he has actually been in. I don’t know why that would be.

**The one actor who has a grip on his poor, southern white-boy role is Steven Weber (Wings, The Shining),  as the Platoon Sergeant. Later, some exposition reveals to us that Weber’s Worcester is a California, city boy. Oh well.

Young and Clean

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Write what you know.

Films are falling off Netfix, and I haven’t been keeping up. With folks around the world under various forms of lockdown, quarantine, and stay-at-home orders (not to mention those who are just taking a bit of a break), I’ve read a lot of complaints about not having enough to do with one’s time. I finding my own schedule squeezed by all manner of extra tasks. Far from binge-watching and otherwise “catching up” on Netflix, this is one area I’ve had to cut back on to make some time. This past week, though, I made some time.

The middle of the month has far fewer movies leaving streaming that you find at the end of the month and Mid-May is no exception. Nevertheless, there are a handful of movies that I haven’t yet seen and a couple of them that rank pretty highly. I had to spread it over multiple nights, but I did manage to watch one of them.

I led off the post the classic advice to would-be authors. In the case of films, it can sometimes pay wonderful dividends. Some of the more clever and intelligent films (and television) I’ve watched anchor their stories in the entertainment business. It’s a realm that screenwriters know well plus, who doesn’t want to take a peek behind the scenery.

The film Christine (no, not that Christine) feels like a script that took this advice. It is dramatization of a true story from 1974. It tells us about Christine Chubbuck and how she came to take her own life while live, on the air, as she led-off a local news broadcast. While her reasons were complex (both in the film and, assuredly, in her real life), much of the focus is on the questions surrounding professional integrity and ambition, particularly as it pertains to the slow slog up the ladder in network news (circa 1970-something).

Beyond the behind-the-scenes look at the businesses of putting on a nightly news show (again, circa 1970-something), the story is somewhat limited. It’s well-acted and looks good enough. We are shown a series of setbacks that would be enough to make many of us despair – cancer, career failure, and unrequited romantic desire. In defense of the screenwriters, it would be difficult to delve deeper into the psyche of Christine Chubbuck as nobody can really say exactly what drove her to do what she did. The films speculates some, but it has probably gone about as far as it dares. What remains is what the writers can KNOW. We know that the 70s news biz was a bit exploitative and sexist and that, for most of its participants, never led to either fame or fortune or even a sustaining career. So that’s the show.

Sometimes this works. In this case it leaves me feeling a little less than satisfied. It’s a shame, because it some ways the movie really was quite good.

Jerusalem’s Lot

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The 1947 partition plan for Jerusalem had it mostly surround by Arab national territory; that controlled by Jordan. While Jerusalem was planned to be an “international city,” it was boarded by Arab on almost every side. During the fight for independence, a significant portion of the Israeli effort was the opening and then defense of supply lines between the Jewish cities on the coast and the enclaves in Jerusalem. The Armistice of 1949 saw Israel holding on to those areas that she controlled, militarily, at the time of the signing. Continuing through the period of 1956 war, while Jerusalem remained a divided city and Israel maintained their overland supply routes, the Holy City appeared more a part of Jordan than Israel. Likewise, despite significant losses of Arab-administered territory in the Independence War, Jordan still controlled the West Bank.

This my fourth in a series of posts on the Six-Day War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

 

In hindsight, the portion of the Six Day War fought between Israel and Jordan might have been avoided. Although one of the triggers of the war was Jordan joining Syria and Egypt in an anti-Israel defensive pact, Jordan’s King Hussein was hesitant about this arrangement. The King had made negative comments about Nasser’s motivations and had, privately to Western diplomats, worried about Arab-nationalist “hysteria.” He signed the agreement with Egypt on May 30th partly out of concern of appear “soft” in the eyes of the Arab world. In doing so, he also accepted the appointment of General Riadh, an Egyptian general, to command the Arab coalition on the Jordanian front.

Jordan’s role in Nasser’s plan was to divert attention and forces away from the Egyptian attack through the Sinai. Jordan was not expected to mount a major offensive of their own. Eventually Jordanians would meet up with the advancing Egyptian armies and combine their efforts to defeat Israel.

The Israel high command understood that Jordan was a side-show in their confrontatino with Egypt and Syria. Israel made overtures toward Jordan as late as June 5th, assuring King Hussein that Israel would not attack Jordan if Jordan did not, themselves, initiate hostilities. King Hussein’s hesitency, however, was overcome by the agreement he had signed with Egypt and through assurances offered him by President Nasser in a June 5th phone call.

When Israel launched their attack, grounding the Egyptian air force, it caused massive confusion within the Egyptian command. Dispatches to Nasser and the military high command in Egypt reported decisive Egyptian victories, victories quite at odds with the rather grim reality. Nasser relayed the news of this phantom Egyptian success to Jordan, encouraging them to launch their supporting attack. With Israeli on the verge of destruction (or so it seemed), Hussein joined in and so set in motion the loss of the West Bank.

Jordan’s war opened with a bombardment of Israeli positions in Jerusalem (as well as other cities) and the seizure of the neutral “Government House” just to Jerusalem’s south. This complex was the residence of the British High Commissioner of Palestine during the mandate which became a DMZ during the Independence War.  At that time, the UN took it over and made it the headquarters of the UN Truce Supervision Organization. Its seizure by Jordan gave Israel a justification for counter action. Israel responded with a rapid assault, expelling the Jordanian forces from the UN’s territory and then continuing southward to the Arab village of Zur Baher. With that move, Israel now controlled the main road headed south from Jerusalem, making it that much more difficult for the Jordanians to link up with the Egyptians.

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I must take the sausage.

Divided Ground provides a Jerusalem scenario where, as the Israeli player, you must take control of the Government House and then push southward to dislodge the Jordanians from additional strong points. The scenario is called The Hill of Evil Council. This is a name for the neighborhood the Arabs call Abu Tor (Father of the Bull) with the hill being Jebel Deir Abu Tor (Mountain of the Monastery of Abu Tor). The sinister reference is to the legend that this was where Joseph ben Caiaphas lived, Caiaphas being the priest and political leader who organized the conspiracy to have Jesus turned over to appease the Romans.

This is a small scenario. Notice the operational area in the above screenshot* is a four-by-five hex area. Constrained as the scenario is, it does a decent job of reproducing a semi-urban warfare at the platoon level. This map is but a fraction of a larger Jerusalem map that was intended to be shipped as a scenario in Divided Ground. Release pressures meant that the more ambitious scenario remaining unfinished. Instead, the Divided Ground provided two small Jerusalem 1967 scenarios, this and one focused on the Old City.

It is scenarios like this one that make me wish for continued development and support for the Divided Ground system leaving me to wonder if I shouldn’t be playing Campaign Series Middle East. Then I play a different scenario.

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A meeting engagement produces many a burning wreck.

After I finished the The Hill of Evil Council scenario, I also played the 1967 war’s version of Bir Gifgafa. My (statistically suspect) experience is that the majority of the Divided Ground are more like the latter. In so many of the scenarios, the losses on both sides are overwhelming. While I managed to take out the bulk of the Egyptian force around the Bir Gifgafa airfield, I ended up losing every single tank under my command. Is this just bad play on my part? Maybe, but the experience just doesn’t feel very historical.

This counter experience, plus the price tag, once again leaves me concluding that Campaign Series Middle East is not for me.

Return to the master post for the Six Day War or continue on to the next article.

*The screenshot isn’t the whole scenario. It represented about the first 2/3rds in my game. There is also an objective off the screen about four hexes to the right.

Lord of the Sword

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I generally try not to read more than one book at a time. I don’t have any hard evidence for it, but I feel that I am happier concentrating on a single story or theme until I’m finished, and only then picking up with the next.

I do, by necessity, watch dissimilar television or film while I’m in the middle of reading a book. I struggled a bit while trying to read The Saxon Chronicles at the same time as I watched Vikings and to a lesser extent while playing catch-up with The Expanse books, while still watching the series as it came out. The key here is to try to read something entirely dissimilar that whatever you’re currently watching, whenever that is possible.

Having young children disrupts even the most sincere attempts to follow a life’s plan. This past week, I found myself reading two books at a time and, furthermore, two that would have left me far happier if I had never held them side by side. The first project has me (re)reading The Fellowship of the Ring to my son. We had recently tackled the Harry Potter series and decided to move on to one of its major inspirations. If you can even call it moving on…

Meanwhile, without considering the consequences, I decided to take a break from Chaim Herzog and re-read a book that I enjoyed as a teen. Sometime in the early eighties I read the book The Sword of Shannara. I fairly certain I read all three of the original trilogy, but I can’t be sure. I remember being pleased with the stories, however far I managed to take them.

Reading the two books simultaneously was actually a bit disorienting. The story of The Sword of Shannara tracks so closely with The Lord of the Rings, I would actually get confused, sometimes, as to which of the two books I was reading. The comparison comes out very badly for The Sword of Shannara. Its story is so much shallower than LotR and being able to actually compare the two in a single night makes it that much more obvious. Worse yet, Terry Brooks’ writing just isn’t as good and when set next to J.R.R. Tolkien, it can appear downright awful. Of course, the contrast is hardly fair. Tokien’s prose (and poetry) is a work of art almost independent from the story. Still, there were some parts of the book where I was distracted by the quality of Brooks’ writing; it felt clunky and repetitive. It took more than half way through Shannara, but  I really began to regret rereading an old favorite and in doing so both spoiling my fond memories, not to mention tarnishing my Fellowship of the Ring bonding experience with my boy.

What this misses, though, is the context in which the book was written as well as the context in which I originally read it. The Sword of Shannara was published in 1977. This was at the beginning of a “fantasy” literature wave that was to help shape my youth. I am not to trying imply that the concept of “high fantasy*” or stories about elves and dwarfs were invented in the late seventies. Obviously this is not true. The novels of Tolkien’s Ring trilogy were published in the 1950s and they saw a surge of popularity here in America in the 1960s. The Hobbit was published in 1937. Ursula LeGuine’s Earthsea series began in 1968 and Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber in 1970.

Nevertheless, the 1976-77 was a formative time in the creation of fantasy as its own genre, which was to grow until capable of sporting shelf after shelf of popular and engaging titles. Many of what would come to be recognized as the “classics” of this genre got there start at this time.

1976 saw the publication of the second** Elric novel, Sailor on the Seas of Fate. 1977 introduced us to the The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (Lord Foul’s Bane), the Xanth world was created by Piers Anthony with the publication of A Spell for Chameleon, the first book in a series that is still seeing additions to this day. Although I’ve never read Earthsea nor Xanth, I spend late 70s and early 80s exploring these exotic worlds full of wonder and magic. 1977 also saw the publication of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, a repackaging of the D&D concept into a consumer-friendly product. In the same year, the first of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books came out, the Monster Manual. The Role Playing Game world grew symbiotically with the similarly-themed books, both drawing from them the games’ inspiration as well as inspiring new literary creations. 1977 also saw the posthumous publication of a new Middle Earth book (!!!), The Silmarillion, that turned out to have none of the charm of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings for the teenaged me.

In other words, we were in the midst of a new literary industry and the beginnings of a deluge of food for the imagination.

It occurs to me that the reasons why I’ve never read Earthsea are actually indicative of the environment in which we found ourselves. I’ve never read it because, circa 1979 or so, the bulk of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy (as it was shelved under at the time) was, frankly, just not that well written. It was also very much a niche offering, so one couldn’t find these books in the neighborhood public library. They had to be purchased (at quite a price for a teen) new from the store, or maybe traded among like-minded enthusiasts. My point being that it was no small investment to take on a fantasy series and the reward was often, like the males’ saidin in The Wheel of Time, tainted.

I can’t remember how I might of ranked the literary quality of The Sword of Shannara when I first read it. I may have been oblivious to its weaknesses, happy to have a story of elves and magic swords to enjoy. I might have noticed and figured it was par for the course; the price to pay to have something to enjoy other than a re-read of The Hobbit. As to comparisons with Lord of the Rings, while Tolkien creates an obviously higher-quality class writing, his works are also a bit more challenging to the teen reader. I recall not being thrilled when wading through page after page of elven poetry or the peculiarities of the Bombadil household. You should remember, too, that while Tolkien’s trilogy was decades older than than Terry Brooks’ efforts, all of this stuff was equally new to me.

Even at the time, the literary world reacted badly to The Sword of Shannara. When the book was published, criticism was a tad harsh. Above all, the complaints centered on its point-by-point theft of the Lord of the Rings story. In a 1978 fantasy anthology book , editor Lin Carter (Conan et al.) declared it “the single most cold-blooded, complete rip-off of another book that I have ever read.”

Brooks wasn’t trying to imitate Tolkien’s prose, just steal his story line and complete cast of characters, and did it with such clumsiness and so heavy-handedly, that he virtually rubbed your nose in it.

Of course, when I quote “critics,” I’m not sure that this novel would have been taken seriously by the mainstream not matter what. “Epic fantasy” was  a subgenre of a subgenre of Science Fiction, a category that itself lacked seriousness and, often, quality. Tolkien’s success notwithstanding (The Silmarillion was on the New York Times best-seller list, ringing in 1978), fantasy books were not expected to be a commercial success. Rather quickly after publication, Shannara sold enough to demonstrate that there was a market out there eager for more of what made The Lord of the Rings so appealing. If it took a pale shadow of The Lord of the Rings to demonstrate that, it nevertheless helped pave the way for all that was to come.

I should probably jump into The Elfstones of Shannara. It might help my childhood memories if I was reminded how Brooks improved with experience. I’m also kind of curious to see how the recent TV series butchered the story, but I have to remember what that story was first.

*A term coined in 1971, for what that’s worth

**Elric himself had been rattling around for more than a decade, but a second novel changed the universe from a collection of (sometimes badly written) magazine submissions to a series of novels.

My Problems are Legion

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Post-script: I played the HPS Simulations: Punic Wars version of the Battle of Sentinum twice now and started a third. I keep trying over and over and I just can’t seem to get it right. Maybe I’m not very good at this. Maybe there is something else going on. Maybe it is both at the same time.

At first glance, Sentinum should be an ideal wargame scenario. At least as far as the historical record can enlighten us, the armies were very equally matched. While the narrative does seem to credit Rome with some superior tactical maneuvering which turned the tide, it was Rome who wrote the history books so… well, make of that what you will. Also, as I’ve pointed out, the HPS Ancients series seems to be targeted at table-top fans for play-by-email. Given that, I’d explect ANY scenario in the game be balanced so as to be suitable to head-to-head competitive play.

Nevertheless, when I played the Roman side, I got myself crushed. After only a dozen or so turns, the Republican army was demoralized and the game told me I had earned a major defeat. Frankly, I didn’t think I’d played that badly, although I’ll grant I made plenty of mistakes my first time through. I figured I’d give it another try to see if the result came out more balanced, with the benefit of a bit of hindsight.

After my first attempt, I complained bitterly about the way the game executes turns. If not clear at the time, this game is a “we-go” mechanic; you enter all your orders and then, during the execution phase, movement and combat takes place simultaneously. For a battle fielding two consular armies, said execution takes a considerable amount of time.

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If you don’t have all day…

What I failed to mention is that the game does provide options for managing the phase. In the menu above, you can see (highlighted) an option for “Fast Computer processing,” which I have checked off. There is also a “Speed of Action” and “Fast Movement.” Of the three, I found “Fast Computer processing” to have the most impact. What it seems to do is to remove a delay – the purpose of which is to allow a player time to see what happens, as it happens. It seems that movement takes place a little faster, although I’m not entirely sure. The big effect is that after each combat computation (which takes place unit pair by unit pair, several times for each side in each turn), the display of the results is posted and immediately deleted. It is therefore no longer possible to tell how much damage was done during combat, but the turn can be reduced to 3-or-4 minutes rather than 15-20.

I note also it is generally not going to be productive to wait until a turn has executed and then try to look through, formation by formation, what has happened. Given the mechanics and the UI, the original (and slow) method of watching each “hit” as it occurs may be the best way to conceptualize the progression of the battle. On the other hand, one can only take so much of this and I can’t imagine many who could patiently watch 20 minutes worth of execution, turn-after-turn, even if he really wanted to grok all the results. It’s a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation. What I regret is implying that it is unavoidable.

Since I’m in complaining mode, I’ll warn you that, while this is indeed configurable, it is not “sticky.” The option to use “Fast Computer processing” doesn’t save with your scenario, so when you load up a game-in-progress, it flips you back to slow processing. Forget to set it again and you’ve either got a 25 minute wait until the turn finishes processing or you’ve got to kill the game, reload, and configure it properly.

Getting back to the play, my second try at the battle was very similar to the first: a quick and decisive loss. In this case, I really felt I was managing my forces competently. I held my right wing together and was making some progress turning the enemy flank when I got shut down. Major defeat.

To investigate, I decided to give the Italian side a try. The resulting game was something a lot closer to balanced. Despite some initial errors, I saw a quick point grab at start followed by Rome’s catching up. The entire game sat in the “draw” scoring zone.

I do wonder if part of my of my problem isn’t the optional “Routed Unit Points Loss” configuration. The manual helpfully explains, “[t]o count the loss of victory points in the game when a routed unit flees the battlefield the player must tick the [option in the] game start menu,” but I’m not sure quite what it means.  Will using this option imbalance a scenario? Will it cause the game to end sooner by running up the victory points faster? Are there battles where routed units should count towards losses and other battles where they shouldn’t? Maybe I shouldn’t just reflexively play with all options turned on.

Another factor where the manual doesn’t explain. Setting a side to be played by the “AI” apparently gives it certain bonuses. I noticed that when I played as the Romans, I was seeing a lot of Roman units “surrender,” particularly when they were still near full strength. Yet, when I switched sides, the opposite seems true. I also notice that some of the healthier legionnaires that I battle against are clearly larger than the starting-strength versions than I had when I played the Romans. Reading the manual couldn’t find any guidance on the subject and the forum that used to provide user-based support for these games seems to have been swallowed by the ravages of internet-time.

Playing as the barbarians makes for a “better” game in that it is more evenly matched and solid play would seemingly produce victory. However, it fails in exactly the ways that originally piqued my interest. The Roman legions no longer behave like Roman legions. Sometimes they come at me with the Hastati taking the lead, sometimes with Triarii. I also have to wonder about the game’s value as a historical tool if the “balancing” to make the AI viable is as significant as it appears to be in this scenario.

That was quite a post-script. At least its not as long as the original.

I’ve Seen Better Days but I Don’t Care

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Nearly a month ago, a post appeared on my Facebook feed. Singer/writer/artist Amanda Palmer jumped on board one of these “challenges” that seem to float around on social media. She leads off:

ok. i never play dumb internet games but everyone is playing this and it’s the apocalypse so ffs, i’ll play. what a fun way to humble brag about the amazing and glittery life i used to have before i just tended to chickens and hung laundry 24/7.

I thought, I could have written that myself. OK, I don’t hang laundry, but tending to chickens can be more than enough to suck up that free time.

I came so close to posting my own version on Facebook but, unlike Ms. Palmer (apparently), I don’t see virtue in humble bragging. Nevertheless, the list has stuck in my brain. It’s the chickens, yes. But it is also the fact that my own life has given me almost exactly the right number of celebrity encounters to make this work.

For those readers who know nothing about me, there can be no bragging nor humility. Of course, using what you know about me to “spot the lie” also becomes impossible. Oh well. The thing is, I don’t think I’ll feel at peace again until I’ve put this up somewhere.

So without further ado, here are 10 Famous people with whom I’ve had a face-to-face conversation.

One is a lie. Guess which one.

  1. Kay Hanley (Letters to Cleo, voice of Josey and the Pussycats)
  2. Parker Stevenson (Hardy Boy)
  3. Hervé Villechaize (Da Plane!)
  4. Will Smith (Fresh Prince)
  5. Rand Paul (U.S. Senator, 2016 Presidential Candidate)
  6. Fat Mike (NoFX)
  7. Sean Bean (Ned Stark)
  8. Tom Berenger (Sgt. Barnes, Gen. Longstreet)
  9. Pete Conrad (Apollo 12)
  10. Mat McBriar (NFL Punter)

Since readers may have a very different idea of celebrity than I do, I’ve added in a description of why I believe they are famous. Just in case.

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Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

I have nobody, real or imagined, in common with Ms. Palmer. However, I can’t be sure, but I think I may have passed Uma Thurman once walking down the street. She waved (I was staring).