The Greeks of Wrath

Let’s flashback to your high school years when pimples were regularly popped and homework assignments were regularly turned in late. Everyone took an English class and I bet in that English class some sort of Greek Mythology was studied. I remember reading Greek poems in those huge textbooks and being assigned questions that went something like this, “Who are the main characters?…What did the God Apollo represent?…Why is this particular passage so boring?” I dreaded these questions and usually wrote BS answers with lists of adjectives to satisfy the teacher, “Apollo represents endurance, stamina, longevity, and perseverance.”

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Fast forward to today and I am reading one of the most celebrated pieces of Greek Mythology of all time – the Iliad by Homer. The Iliad is a poem that doesn’t rhyme and takes up over 550 pages of text – it is the furthest thing from Dr. Seuss or a Haiku. I cringed when I saw that I had to read this classic and I really only had one happy memory from when I read similar poems in the past – recalling a sexy illustration of Aphrodite with a healthy amount of nakedness. This time around there were no juicy pictures but I did finally grasp the importance of this 2700-year-old text.

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The Iliad is set in the 10th year of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans – Achilles is the great fighter for the Greeks and Hector is the great fighter for the Trojans. The gods – Zeus, Hera, Hermes, Apollo, Aphrodite, Athena, Ares, Poseidon, etc. – choose sides and constantly interfere with the happenings of the mortals. The main point of the plot is the journey of Achilles in his search for glory and his eventual victory over Hector – which is necessary for the final destruction of Troy.

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Achilles is really a jerk throughout the book; similar to a big man-child who is mad about not getting his way – refusing to fight with his fellow soldiers because of pride. There are many symbolic points to this poem but the most pronounced involve the role of “rage;” rage controls the mortals and immortals – sometimes facilitating and sometimes handicapping. Achilles more than anyone wields rage like one of those dancing air guys at a car dealership – you never know which direction he’ll swing next. In the end, he loses his best friend, Patroclus, to Hector’s spear because of his rage – and subsequently wields its force to destroy Troy.

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The question is, does rage hurt or hinder the greatest fighter? He looses Patroclus but gains all the glory for bringing down the great Troy. I think rage in our own lives, just like Achilles, is a force to be weary of. I know I have raged in the pursuit of being “right” to gain glory; that glory is important at the moment but what do we sacrifice – relationships, friendships, precious time? Pride, glory, and respect are a three-headed god which feeds on our selfish desires. Sure Achilles is remembered…but his rage and selfishness taint our view of his victories – his ultimate glory permanently smeared.

 

How the West Won the Gun

Peanut Butter and Jelly. Chips and Dip. Simon and Garfunkel. Summer and Ice Cream. Americans and Guns. All these things go together and are culturally inseparable. The world knows that America is the land of gun loving-second amendment wielding-wild west winning red-blooded citizens. Americans view their own successful history tangentially with the success of the gun: single shot muskets in the Revolutionary War; Colt pistols in the western frontier; Winchester repeating rifles in WWII. Even my favorite movie during the holidays, A Christmas Story, details Ralphie’s unstoppable obsession with the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. Guns are constantly in the news because they beckon polemic arguments. Just last week Donald Trump incorrectly stated that Hillary Clinton wanted to abolish the second amendment, and if that happened, the gun lovers would have to take matters into their own hands (source). I for one am not anti-guns. I believe people should have a right to own pistols and rifles designed for hunting. I do not believe that people should be able to buy assault rifles that can kill dozens of citizens in a matter of seconds. Guns to me are like pharmaceuticals-they have the ability to protect but some come with severe side affects. And like drugs, guns should be regulated to prevent excessive harm to the public-think Antibiotics vs. Heroin. Many of our conversations about guns today are myopic in their view related to their long history in America. Were Americans always so gun obsessed? Why does American culture and the gun fit together like peanut butter and jelly? I found the answers to these questions in The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture by Pamela Haag.

In 1756, a report found that the colonies’ “militia amounts to about 36,000 but not half that number are armed.” In 1776, the governor of Rhode Island wrote to George Washington that the colonists disposed of their arms due to feelings of security, that the colony was effectively “disarmed.” During the 18th and early 19th century, guns were made by gunsmiths. Gunsmiths would make one gun at a time per request and there was a high amount of skill required to complete the entire project. These early American guns were single-shot front loaders which were very heavy and not all that accurate. Since this type of gun was difficult to produce and limited in its capabilities, it was treated as a tool for people with specific needs-farmers, soldiers, Lewis and Clark expeditions, etc. The average Joe did not own a gun during this time. This would all change with Eli Whitney’s idea that he could make a gun with interchangeable parts.

Eli Whitney was one of the first gun manufacturers that made guns not with gunsmiths but with factory workers. Whitney was the forefather to Samuel Colt and Oliver Winchester who would begin their businesses in the mid 1800’s. Colt and Winchester are household names today but their businesses had very slow starts in the US. Americans simply did not see the appeal in semiautomatic rifles or handguns and in 1850, Henry William Herbert, one of America’s first sport-hunting writers, predicted that rifles would be obsolete by the end of the century. The Civil War kept the businesses temporarily afloat but afterwards, to stay in business, gun manufacturers used their factories to produce “sewing machines, horse carts, cotton gins, bridges, plows, mowers…” The only market that truly kept Winchester and Colt alive was the foreign war market. During the 1800’s, in South America, Europe, Mexico, and Asia, there was a huge demand for arms. The “American” gun only stayed out of bankruptcy because foreign nationalism required semiautomatic rifles. Colt and Winchester had to solve a problem, they had a ton of guns but little demand in America. How could they make a market?

Winchester and Colt were geniuses in marketing and they used the wild west as their primary medium. Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, Annie Oakley, Belle Star, Calamity Jane, and many others were incessantly written about in dime novels. These dime novels were written as truth but were only fictional stories where “virtue must triumph, vice and crime must not only be defeated, but must by painted in colors so strong and vivid that there is no mistake about it.” What was the quintessential weapon of all these western heroes? Not coincidentally…Colt and Winchester. In addition to the dime novels, Winchester was a prolific user of full color advertisements that showed harrowing scenes of men in action making “The Finishing Shot” with their repeating rifle. It doesn’t end there, Winchester sent 3,363,537 boys between the ages of 10 to 16 a written letter about their .22 caliber that could be used to earn Winchester “Sharpshooting Medals.” This form of marketing extended to all forms of print and media-including Winchester sponsored movies that flashed ads for their guns. Over 750 westerns were released between 1950 and 1960 with 8 of the top 10 prime-time television shows in 1959 being westerns. The gun had morphed from a tool of war to a sexy symbol of virtue over vice, freedom, and individualism. Like so many other products, the gun was marketed towards our emotions and Americans soon connected this 1900’s gun mystique with all guns throughout American history. The guns of the American Revolution, that were sparse and clunky, were now prolific and majestic tools of freedom-just like they were with the winning of the west. Fast forward to today, where gun manufacturers have no problem selling guns because it is as American as eating apple pie. The second amendment gave us the right to bear arms but Samuel Colt and Oliver Winchester gave us the desire to bear arms.

 

 

Abraham Lincoln vs. Donald Trump

The wise old owl lived in a oak,
The more he saw the less he spoke,
The less he spoke the more he heard,
Why aren’t we all like that old bird?

What do Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump have in common? Almost nothing besides them being white-male republicans. Lincoln grew up in poverty, Trump grew up in wealth. Lincoln was self educated, Trump was ivy-league educated. Lincoln became a lawyer and politician, Trump became a real-estate investor. Lincoln took moderate stances on issues, Trump currently takes extreme stances on issues.Lincoln took great efforts to avoid political hostilities, Trump takes great pride in politic incorrectness. My mind has been comparing these two men because I just finished the Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Lincoln by David Herbert Donald. Throughout this read, I marveled at how Abraham Lincoln was able to walk the precarious tight rope of politics to achieve extraordinary goals. Lincoln had to appeal to Radical Republicans, Conservative Republicans, War Democrats, and Peace Democrats all while orchestrating a Civil War. He was elected in 1860 on a platform that supported the institution of slavery but not its expansion. Between 1861-1865 he slowly implemented policies that eventually abolished slavery through the ratification of the thirteenth amendment. Lincoln never made decisions lightly and would contemplate every outcome with the utmost detail. Many times, Lincoln would sit back and listen instead of jumping in and making a rash decision. Lincoln’s talents of compromise and patience are what I most admire about our 16th president. People don’t realize that Lincoln was not always popular throughout his presidency and at some points had lower approval ratings than George W. Bush. He was constantly racked with stress and by the end of war he looked as though he aged 20 years. He had to deal with a divided country, a war that resulted in 600,000 fatalities, the reconstruction of the devastated south, mounting federal debt, political rivals, and a crazy wife. Through all of this, he still managed to make great decisions that were moderate and in the end brought the country back together. The United States would not be the same without Abraham Lincoln and I am so grateful that I was able to learn about him in a in-depth manner.

So what about Trump?  Trump is currently the front runner for the Republican Party which ironically Lincoln helped found back in 1854. The Republican Party is quite different today than it was in Lincoln’s time but United States politics is not. As in Lincoln’s time, there are rival parties and a lot of bickering over how best to run the country. Trump unfortunately is far from one to compromise and is very quick to respond to opponents via the media. He spouts hate and reminds me of a bully with a lot of money. Lincoln never ostracized and downgraded members of his own party; Lincoln especially never offended others publicly with the intent to draw publicity. These contrasts make me sad because I want the next president to be like Abraham Lincoln and I want Americans to remember what works and what does not work in politics. Politics requires compromise and nothing can be accomplished without careful consideration of all perspectives. We should not base our vote on whether a candidate is a Republican or a Democrat but rather on their character and their ability to work with others. Can anyone honestly tell me that Donald Trump will unite our country and make it better through his graceful character? Lincoln was one in a trillion but we can at least look for a candidate that mirrors him in at least some manner. Let’s learn from the past and remember that great leaders are those who are humble, not those who hold themselves higher than everyone else…Trump Tower anyone?

The General, The Tank, The William Tecumseh Sherman

After quite a long moving process, I am finally settled into my “Moby Dick” house and quite happy. The process of furnishing, organizing, and copious hours of cleaning left me without much time to read or write. Thankfully, the project is winding down and I have been masterfully avoiding my wife’s “To-Do” list that was placed on the refrigerator like a black spot of death. Tomorrow, I am going to a Civil War reenactment in celebration of the 150th anniversary since the bloody war ended at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9th, 1865. My high school education on the Civil War was quite shallow and I believe we spent about a week on the entire subject. Desiring to expand my knowledge before the reenactment, I checked out Fierce Patriot:The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert L O’Connell. I picked this book up because the cover looked cool and I knew absolutely nothing about General Sherman and his role in the Civil War.

Sherman was a West Point graduate with fiery-red hair and a strong sense of pride in the ever expanding United States. He took many different jobs throughout the country and displayed a sense of desire for adventure and career advancement. When very young, his father died and was subsequently adopted by the wealthy Ohio senator-Thomas Ewing. He ended up marrying his foster sister Ellen Ewing but spent most the time away from her because she preferred being in Ohio with her father. Sherman was first appointed to colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry regiment and with his brave performance at the First Battle of Bull Run was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers by Abraham Lincoln. After a nervous breakdown and a bout of mental illness while in Kentucky, Sherman was able to find his military-sweet spot working under Grant’s command in the battles of Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Atlanta among others. Sherman is best known for his fierce psychological warfare against the south in his March to the Sea campaign. After burning most of Atlanta, Sherman marched through Georgia foraging, burning, and looting civilian property. This march culminated with the capture of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina-both capitols burned and ransacked to crush all confederate hopes. Sherman was a strategic genius and ushered in a new era of warfare in which civilian supporters were fair game in the hazards of war (think Hiroshima during WWII). Beyond just strategy, Sherman was a gregarious general who was given the nickname “Uncle Billy” because he was extremely approachable and friendly to all his soldiers. His later life was filled with a celebrity untainted by the smearing affects of politics (unlike the fate of Ulysses S. Grant) and a quite prominent career completing the transcontinental railroad.

Sherman by no means was not a perfect man: black equality was not a concern to him, he wanted all the buffalo extinct so that the Native Americans would be forced to move to reservations, and he had a fair share of affairs with various women. I admire Sherman in his career accomplishments more then his personal accomplishments. The man knew how to get the job done and was extremely confidant in himself while not being overly pretentious. Thankfully, he had a strong desire to keep the Union together because if he fought for the Confederacy the outcome of the Civil War may have been different; this being a strong possibility because he actually was the founder of a military school in Louisiana when the war first broke out. Sherman in the end helped shape the physical and ideological America we know today-uniting North, South, East, and West with an uncompromising vision of progress.