Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 2, 2014
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Long Shadow, National Harbor
A hundred years ago this week, the Western Front in World War I was
becoming locked down in a pattern that nobody foresaw would last for four
brutal years and waste more than a million lives.
The Battle of the Marne was over and the Germans and Brits had finished their
Race to the Sea, so that the battle lines stretched from the English Channel to
Since all the commanders on both sides believed in the supremacy of the
offensive in warfare, they just couldn't resist sending waves of infantry against
intrenched enemy lines to be slaughtered by machine guns and barrages from
In the Battle of Ypres on 19 October 1914, the Germans would launch a major
attack, hoping to score the breakthrough that their military doctrine required.
They sent inexperienced 17- to 20-year-old soldiers, many of them fresh out of
school, to march to their deaths, shoulder to shoulder, singing patriotic songs.
Even the Germans called it the "Massacre of the Innocents."
Before November, the offensive would cost a quarter of a million lives --
including nearly half of the British Regular Army. Yet, oddly enough,
Britain became the last of the major power to institute a draft. Instead, they
would rely on volunteers to replace their soul-numbing losses.
Why did it work? Because of British women. You don't need a draft when any
man who is not in military uniform is challenged by young women who demand
to know why they haven't volunteered -- or who give them a white feather,
signifying cowardice. Public shaming worked way better than the draft to
keep cannon fodder heading for the most stupid, pointless waste of
soldiery in human history.
The history of World War I is an exercise in weeping frustration as unteachable
commanders kept thinking that if they just sent enough soldiers "over the top,"
they could somehow get past the enemy machine guns.
Only Winston Churchill seemed to realize that continuing to try the same
tactics would never work. He tried an end run by forcing the Dardanelles,
where a career-hack naval commander failed to follow orders on a plan that
was 24 hours away from total success; and Churchill also thought of and
sponsored the development of the tank, which finally broke through the trench
World War I -- which was called "the Great War" until 1939 -- wiped out a
generation of young men in Britain, France, and Germany, and led to the
collapse of Tsarist Russia and installed the Bolsheviks as the new, even more
brutal Tsars. (Putin is just Stalin Lite, but he is trying to continue the Russian
When we look back at the 20th Century, the First World War can almost seem
like the forgotten war; but in many ways it shaped the whole history of Europe
and therefore of the world for generations afterward.
Maybe you aren't interested in commemorating the Great War by reading
military history, but I have an alternative that might be even more interesting:
The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth
Century, by David Reynolds.
Reynolds shows how the public perception of the Great War differed in each
country and in each decade, and how public policy was prompted by a
completely understandable dread of ever going through such an ordeal again.
Neville Chamberlain's fatal attempts to appease Hitler by abandoning countries
that might have resisted him is far more understandable if you remember that
England's wounds from World War I were not yet healed. Everyone had lost
friends and family members in that war, and understood the hideous price
that might follow any attempt to stop Hitler.
(One wonders, though, why the American Left today, led by the Beloved Leader,
is willing to break any promise and betray any ally in order to avoid war,
considering that America has not suffered any such bloodbath. Instead our
military victories in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan were almost surgical in their
precision, and American loss of life was astonishingly low. There is no public
memory of the horror of war like that in Britain and France in the 1930s.)
In reading (or listening to the audiobook of) The Long Shadow, it is almost
impossible to avoid comparing the attitudes and actions of the nations that
fought the Great War with the same nations -- and others -- today.
It puts a powerful new perspective on the war, reminding us that wars don't
happen in isolation, and simply declaring peace and bringing home the troops
may not guarantee peace or save more lives when you face an implacable
enemy that wants to shed blood.
As Reynolds carefully examines events from the more distant years of the 20th
century, it's almost sad to see how he then adopts the prejudices of the
European intelligentsia in discussing our most recent wars, not even bothering
to fact-check the kind of assertion that he would never have taken at face value
from the 1920s or 1930s.
But such frustrating lapses are very rare; most of the book is a powerful record
and warning of how the stupidities of leaders can lead to devastating losses
farther down the line.
One thing is certain: There is never just one lesson to learn from a war, and
if you learn only one lesson, chances are you will make horrible mistakes
because of the lessons you did not learn.
We are the generation whose votes will shape the future; The Long Shadow
gives an excellent perspective on how public attitudes and myths can lead
nations headlong into disaster.
When I see online titles like "Twenty-two Maps and Charts That Will
Surprise You" I must admit I am a skeptic. Really? Do you think I'm that
Well, at least they didn't say they would amaze me or make me faint.
In fact, I was surprised more than once. The first map has a circle around
China, India, Indonesia, and the nearby countries, and declares that "more
than half the world's population lives inside this circle."
The circle really isn't that big.
But then there's the world map showing every country that has ever been
invaded by the British (or by some group authorized by the British
It's a lot of countries. As in, most of them. However, it's worth pointing out
that it's still smaller than the number of countries invaded by Coca Cola.
There is a map showing how huge Africa is, just by dropping a whole bunch of
countries inside it. And the map showing how many countries don't use the
Isn't it nice to know we Americans have something in common with Burma?
I loved the map of the United States that names each state with the nation
closest to it in land area. Rhode Island and Samoa -- that makes sense. But I
thought Latvia was way larger than West Virginia, and that Bangladesh was
many times larger than Georgia or Illinois.
I was miffed that North Carolina could only be linked with the non-nation of
Somaliland, an unrecognized administrative district inside Somalia. Come on,
the point of the map was to link states with the nation most similar in area.
They should have stuck to the rule.
Maryland the size of Belgium? Oregon the size of Gabon?
So much depends on the size of the continent where a country is located.
When they show you Gabon on the map of Africa, it really doesn't look all that
big because Africa is huge. Then Latvia, on a map of Europe, looks much
larger because Europe is, er, unhuge.
The map of world wealth is quite astonishing. The rich countries balloon to
fill a lot of space on the map. But Africa, that huge continent, dangles like a
fob below the Mediterranean. Huge place, desperately poor.
But on the same map, Japan is the biggest surprise -- a huge wad of wealth
bigger than Germany. Maybe about the size of India.
It's encouraging to see that during George W. Bush's supposedly bloodthirsty
presidency, worldwide deaths from war were at a low point in recent
history -- perspective, anyone? Assault deaths in the U.S. are also falling.
And it's cool that infant mortality has been halved in the past few decades.
The chart about global population exploding to 11 billion people by 2100 is, of
course, absurd. All such projections have always collapsed under the weight
of actual fact.
Does their projection take into account the fact that increasing prosperity
lowers the birth rate? No one dreamed of that as a possibility, but in the past
half century it has been the dominant fact in the failure of population
And, speaking cynically, there's the obvious fact that world population can't
expand beyond our ability to feed ourselves; when we can't eat, we die in large
numbers, and the numbers stop growing so fast.
And what falling birthrates and famine can't deal with, the other horsemen of
the Apocalypse will see to soon enough. Ebola, anyone? And the folks at
ISIS or ISIL are trying to curb the population explosion by diminishing the non-Muslim population, one head at a time.
(Since they follow the prophet Hitler rather than Muhammed, my fear is that
they'll discover the efficiency of the gas chamber; beheading puts a natural
limit on the volume of murder they can accomplish in the name of Allah.)
These are maps, though, worth looking at.
I spent a couple of hours last Saturday at National Harbor, in Maryland on
the Potomac just east of DC. I knew of the place only because I had been told
it was where my favorite piece of public art was relocated a few years ago.
"The Awakening," a statue of a giant rising out of the earth, used to be at
Hains Point in DC, at the end of a long coastal island. But because people
would drive along the island drunk, and then crash into the statue, it seemed
desirable to move it.
Its placement in National Harbor might have been wonderful, right along the
shore so you can see it from a large plaza above. But between the statue and
the plaza, they placed a huge LED billboard, so you can at best catch a
glimpse of the giant's hand -- you miss the perspective entirely.
That's like hanging a brochure rack from the frame of the Mona Lisa, so the
brochures completely block her face.
But that faux pas aside, National Harbor is quite an enjoyable place to spend a
day, or perhaps a couple of days.
The Ferris wheel looks like fun, if you like Ferris wheels, but it's hard to be
impressed by any Ferris wheel now that the huge London Eye exists. (The
world's tallest when it was built, it has now been surpassed by Ferris wheels in
China, Singapore, and Las Vegas, but I don't care. The London Eye is the
cool one, even if it's going to be branded by Coca-Cola starting in 2015.)
The real charm of National Harbor is that right now, for the next few weeks at
least, there are shops that don't exist in every other mall in America.
So if you regard shopping in new places as a kind of recreation, then this is
still pretty good. My friends and I only walked one short street and entered
three stores -- and we had a great time.
One was Artcraft ( http://www.ArtCraftOnline.com ), which has a broad array
of expensive and cheap, practical and decorative arts and crafts. There are
bright-colored, old-fashioned-looking pieces by the group called Sticks,
and many other kinds of art as well.
Of course, my shopping there was not as extensive as it might have been,
because we already own my favorite things from their online shop, including
the butterfly benches in our back yard.
Cariloha and Del Sol Color Change share the same retail space, but perhaps
they should count as two shops. Del Sol offers clothing with Ultra-violet-sensitive art that bursts into bright color when exposed to the sun.
But the revelation was Cariloha Bamboo. I always think of bamboo as the
thick grass stems girdled by notches every few inches -- you know, woody
plants that are used for making walking sticks and for beating criminals in
It turns out, though, that you can extract fibers from bamboo that can be
woven into incredibly soft fabrics that are odor-resistant and hypo-allergenic. My friends bought pillowcases and I bought a towel and a throw
made of the stuff, and all I can say is: They live up to the hype.
Soft and absorbent, it's the best towel I've ever used. Period. And my friends
love their new pillowcases.
Truth in advertising: The bamboo towel is half bamboo and half cotton, and
many other items are blends. And I've only used mine for a few days, so I can't
exactly promise how long they keep that softness and absorbency.
The cost is right in line with other high-quality towels, so if you already
pamper yourself in this area, the price won't break the bank.
The third store we shopped at was Stonewall Kitchen -- whose products I've
already raved about here. Stuff got bought. Nuff said.
We had supper at Rosa Mexicana, a very high quality Mexican restaurant that
combines innovative sauces and perfectly crafted traditional dishes.
Parking was convenient and, by visiting on an autumn Saturday instead of the
summer season, we found the streets and stores busy yet uncrowded.
There are several hotels right there in the shopping area. It's worth checking
things out at http://NationalHarbor.com .
I'm not sure you'll think it's worth driving or flying to DC just to stay there, but
if you're going to DC anyway, it might make sense to center your activities at
National Harbor and then take day trips to everything else you came to see. At
least you'll know that you'll have good meals and fun shopping when you're not
out touring the sights of the capital.
In my church, we not only encourage daily scripture reading, there are quite a
few members who actually do it.
I, in my laziness, am not one of them. I used to read and study the scriptures
intensively, especially when writing plays or novels or audioplays based on
them. I don't imagine I've learned all that I have to learn. I've just discovered
that my ability to remain awake while reading diminishes when it's
material I've already read a dozen times over (or more).
A friend of mine, facing a similar problem, decided to take the astonishing step
of helping herself concentrate on her scripture reading by copying out the
entire book by hand. She looks at the verse and then writes it down on a
There are a lot of words in the scriptures. And while she does pay close
attention to the meaning of what she's copying out, she also notices things
that only come to your attention when you're writing something down.
She has noticed, for example, that some chapters have unusually high
concentrations of high-scoring Scrabble letters.
Yes, I'm talking about the 8-point J and X and the 10-point Q and Z.
Am I saying that she plays the scriptures like a Scrabble game?
Well ... as David Spade would say (in a high-pitched squeak), "She kinda does."
It's a grand slam when a chapter contains all four high-scorers. Since a
chapter can contain proper nouns, J isn't that big a thrill. But Q -- well, you
have to hope for a bit of iniquity, either enacted or warned against.
But she recently found one chapter with a double grand slam -- all four high-scorers, twice each. She really doesn't expect to top that, ever.
Is this sacrilegious?
Surely it's better to have a few thoughts of Scrabble while copying out
scriptures than to simply play Scrabble and ignore the scriptures entirely.
As the Disney song says, a spoonful of sugar ...
When I teach at Southern Virginia University, I have about a three-hour drive
each way. Sometimes I make that drive at night. But it's scary, because there
are deer out there who are trying to kill me.
It remains keenly in my memory that during my teens, an acquaintance of
mine struck a deer while riding with her boyfriend in a Volkswagen. The deer's
body hurtled through the windshield and killed them both.
Nobody in his right mind sets out to kill a deer with an automobile. It's not a
legal way to hunt, and the perils are real and harsh. The problem is, nobody
has mentioned to the deer how inappropriate it is to bump into cars.
So as I drive through mountain country along US 220 in Virginia, the deer play
"Whack-a-Car" so regularly that I have now had my second collision with a
deer on the same stretch of highway.
Since both times the deer bounded away from the accident, for all I know this
last one was the same deer having a second go.
The first time, the deer rammed the side of my car with its head, requiring a
But last week, a deer in the median leapt out in front of me, and if I had not
noticed and braked instantly (i.e., if I had been texting or checking emails or
even looking at my GPS), I would have had that deer through the windshield
and in my face.
As it was, the right side of my bumper caught the deer in the flank at about
forty miles an hour (instead of the much higher speed limit). The deer bounded
away, but I had a cracked bumper and fender, as well as lesser damage along
the whole right side.
Hard as it was on my car, I can't help but fear it was harder on the deer. Yes,
it leapt away, but who knows how the bruising or other injury might hamper
it? The predators that used to pursue deer in these eastern forests are pretty
much gone, but the damage done by my car may seriously interfere with its
quality of life, however long that life now continues.
What will it take to stop these predatory deer from attacking cars? Fencing
every highway seems impractical, especially because it would seriously
interfere with normal migration patterns.
I had never heard of such a thing, but a friend told me about Save-A-Deer
Whistles. While there are several brands available, the Save-A-Deer Whistle is
the smallest and cheapest, and yet quite possibly the most effective.
Each unit consists of a pair of small whistles, and it is easily mounted on the
car. The whistles start to issue a sound -- too high for human ears -- at about
35 miles per hour.
The whistle almost always causes deer (and "moose, elk, antelope, and
kangaroos") to freeze where they are, immobilized as they try to make sense of
Of course, with wild animals there is no certainty, but the manufacturer's tests
show that 90 percent of deer stop cold, sometimes turning to look for the
source of the sound.
A stopped deer is one that is not leaping into your path. However, not every
deer will stop, so it's still essential to exercise caution while driving through
areas thick with wildlife.
I can promise that in North Carolina and Virginia you won't hit any kangaroos
or moose, with or without the Save-A-Deer Whistle. Still, my two close
encounters with leaping fur-wrapped venison convinced me to install them on
all our cars and pass some along to other family members.
Remember that since you can't hear the sound of the whistle yourself, you
can't be sure they're on the job unless you periodically check to make sure
they're still attached to the car and that the holes aren't blocked.
You can buy the Save-A-Deer Whistle on Amazon.com, or you can buy directly
from the manufacturer for $5.95 at Deerwhistle.com. Even if you don't care all
that much about saving deer from their own suicidal impulses, I'm betting you
do care about avoiding car damage or worse.