All posts by Bill Urban

About Bill Urban

Bill Urban retired in 2015 after a fifty-two year career that began at the University of Kansas. In that period he published twenty-five books and numerous articles and book reviews; he also took many student groups to Europe and to historical sites around Illinois. He is still teaching part-time.

Monmouth College history in 15 minutes


By William Urban

A few years ago I was asked to give a fifteen minute summary of the history of Monmouth College. What I did instead was to distribute the following essay, then answer questions. I was never asked to do it again, but I thought it is still worth sharing. After all the fall semester is not far off, and we need to think of something besides politics.

Higher education in America began with small colleges founded by religious bodies — from Harvard, Yale and Princeton right to Knox Manual Labor College in 1841 and The Monmouth College in 1856. Before the 1862 Morrill Act establishing Land Grant universities the exceptions were few — Dartmouth and William and Mary for Native Americans, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina for everyone — but many well-known universities resembled small colleges until the post-World War II boom.

As Americans spread west, they founded church-related colleges everywhere. As one wit said, “It’s a poor town that does not have a poor college.” In curriculum and student life all were similar — in general more demanding than today. Students got to know one another; all could complain about the food, the lumpy beds and lack of privacy, the dull lectures, the religious atmosphere (rules against smoking, drinking, playing cards and dancing); after the Civil War many found friends and amusement in the new fraternities and sororities, in sports, innovative pranks, and class rivalries. They made close friendships with faculty who worked long hours for very little pay and without retirement benefits. They got to know administrators because there were so few of them and some taught classes. Costs were low, and those with no family wealth could often find a low-paying job on campus or in one of the rooming houses. Dormitories were rare and Spartan. Clothing was formal, social activities were closely monitored.

Monmouth College was begun by members of the Associate Presbyterian Church who wanted a high school at a central location where respectable families were willing to provide room and board for their children. Their patriot grandparents had split with the Presbyterians in South Carolina during the Revolution — they were also anti-slavery, favored women’s rights, and believed fervently in the value of a good education. Western Illinois, though no longer frontier country, had cheap land, good soil and winters.

The Academy was started in 1853. In 1856, when the first seniors were ready to graduate, trustee Abner Harding helped get a charter from the Illinois legislature that exempted all college-owned property from taxes, which was important because many gifts to the college were in the form of farms; this later helped the college survive difficult times. Since the student body was soon too large for the brick Academy building on North A, President Wallace advocated having a separate structure for the collegiate program — one somewhat distant from the dissolute life around the city square.

It is worth noting that women were never admitted to the college — they were there from the beginning. No Seminary Street, as in Galesburg, to remind everyone that Knox women were once kept separate. But co-education was still rare, and when David Wallace came from Massachusetts, he made stops at those few colleges with female students to ask about their experiences.

Wallace soon learned that money and politics were greater problems than having women in classes. Monmouth College students were mostly Associate Presbyterians or Protestants who shared their ideas. When the students wanted to have a Lincoln-Douglas debate, he discouraged them, fearing that this would make the vicious local debate over slavery worse. Another problem was that not a single student was willing to speak for the Democrats’ platform. When the Civil War came, most of the men of military age enlisted — the 232 soldiers compared favorably to Dartmouth and Princeton. The ensuing dearth of male students caused a financial crisis — one that would be repeated during most of America’s great wars — but made worse because Wallace had just begun to build Old Main on a hill east of downtown overlooking Valley Beautiful.

The post-war college was very dynamic, with the women founding the first and third female fraternities in the nation (It would have been the first and second, but even then students got their paperwork in late.) The depression of 1873 was a hard blow, but the college expanded its base into Iowa by absorbing Washington College. The 1896 Auditorium reflected the growing importance of the music program.”

This is a good place to pause, for the next years were a flurry of crises, each worse than the one preceding it. It seemed that Monmouth College would go the way of so many small colleges in the Midwest. Why didn’t it?

Review Atlas (August 4, 2016), 4.


Urban’s weekly column


By William Urban

I missed this spy thriller by Daniel Silva when it came out in 2007, but I wished I hadn’t. The train to Chicago and back gave me enough time to turn all but ten of the pages. Those were finished before lights went out.

Silva’s main character, Gabriel Allon, is an art restorer and an Israeli agent who defends his nation in the back alleys of Europe and the Arab world. In his world some people just ask to be killed. Not that Allon likes his job, but he understands that some people cannot be reasoned with, especially not those who want to destroy Israel, kill Zionists, and just murder Jews. Still, he can’t just go around murdering suspected jihadists at random. He can’t even safely defend himself — the politically correct police forces of Europe would love to put him in jail. Technically, he’s not even supposed to go there uninvited.

Fortunately for Allon, an upbringing in Germany made him fluent in that language, years in Venice and Rome did the same for Italian, and every educated European knows French. The Hebrew and Arabic he got from study and living in the Middle East. His English is okay, but you’d know he’s not from here. He’s an excellent shot, but his strength lies in his memory — he not only knows the brushstrokes of every important artist, but he remembers faces, a skill which allows him to identify, then elude trackers; when it’s matter of life or death, he makes decisions faster than his enemies.

Allon had been dealing with radicals since the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympic games, when he joined the “Wrath of God” squad that tracked down the twelve murderers one by one and killed them. The world has changed in the thirty-five years since then. Most importantly, there are Muslims living everywhere in Europe now. The first generation came to escape poverty and totalitarian governments; they loved everything that Britain, France, Germany and other western countries offered them.

The second generation is a different matter. They grew up fluent in the local languages — Dutch in the case of this novel, and often English — and knew what working class locals thought of them. The upper classes and intellectuals, in contrast, want to ignore ethnic problems altogether, even to the extent of punishing anyone who says a word about the growing Muslim presence and the rapidly expanding sympathy for jihadists.

In short, the welcome mat is out for anyone from outside, even imams supported by the Saudi government who say that true believers have to seal themselves off from the sins of the infidel (no drinking, no looking at women, and no toleration for gays, Christians or atheists) and who hate democracy. The second generation is eager to find an alternative to the low-paying jobs open to them, and to the moral vacuum of the West. As far as they are concerned, Europe and America mean alcoholism, random sexual encounters, and support for Israel.

Of course, European support for Israel has almost completely vanished in recent years. Anti-Semitism is socially accepted again, especially since so many Europeans believe that if Israel disappears, so too will disputes within Islam, the conflict between Pakistan and India, and Somalia and Kenya. Also, Jews also work too hard, study too long, they are pushy and they stick together.

It is a strange world. I remember a conversation at least thirty years ago in which I was told that we should bring in every immigrant who wanted to come, then settle them on 10 acres plots along Old Highway 34. When I suggested that the newcomers might want more than living on what they could produce themselves (and certainly their children would), I got a lecture that would not be out of place in a Sustainable Agriculture program today: immigrants would be very pleased to live a simple, healthy life without the excess luxuries that weigh down so many Americans.

In short, there are a lot of ideas in this book that we could well reflect on. But the birthrate among the immigrants, their increasing radicalization, and the blindness of the European political classes is not the only theme here.

There is a clear warning what would happen when the radicals overthrew the totalitarian governments of the Middle East. We’ve seen this happen. Our hopes for a good outcome from the Arab Spring rested on the same type of optimism that made the Dutch say “One nation, one people” even as anyone with open eyes could see that Holland was dividing into an amoral, unconcerned secular majority and a growing, angry minority. Islam was winning.

The West had long had ambivalent feelings about the authoritarian governments of the Middle East. The events following the overthrow of the Shah of Iran sobered a few thinkers, so that even as they disliked Mubarak in Egypt and others, they knew that the alternative was even worse. However, when the non-thinkers took charge recently, they helped overthrow the authoritarian governments. The Arab Spring led to turmoil and disorder everywhere, but only the Egyptian military has managed to take back control, and that only because the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated, once again, that being a revolutionary was poor preparation for governing. Elsewhere the genie has refused to go back into the bottle.

Egypt is a long way from quiet. The birth rate, the collapsing economy, and the environmental devastation are only the most obvious problems. More serious is the large number of youths across the Arab world who see themselves trapped in a worse situation than their cousins in Holland and Britain.

Thousands of boys of this generation have gone to Syria and Iraq, and the Saudis who paid for their religious education and who armed the first rebels are now trying to keep those trained warriors from bringing their jihad home.

We worry about this, too, but not enough to make our borders more secure, or to continue surveillance programs on mosques where hatred is preached. We have plenty of friends in the American Muslim community. But that is still the first generation. We have yet to see if we can do a better job of integrating the second generation than the Europeans have.

Recently Holland, Australia and Britain have begun to rethink their multi-cultural policies; the Germans have begun rounding up radicals. However, American politicians still worry about hurting feelings.

Review Atlas (Dec 4, 2014), 4.

Weekly Column: crusades


By William Urban

Now that Muslims are too busy killing one another to remember what the topic of the day was ten years ago, it gives us a moment to think back on that era, when Jews in Israel were portrayed alternatively as crusaders and Nazis, and Americans in Iraq as crusaders. It is worth remembering this, because the theme will return again, if the pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel riots in European capitals don’t mean that it hasn’t come back already. There is some continuity in this: the first crusaders started out their “pilgrimage” by murdering every Jew they encountered.

I’ve been thinking about this. In fact, it fits right with the central theme of my next book — that people on the peripheries of states are often unhappy that their way of life, especially their system of morality and their religion, is being undermined by what they see in the distant, evil cities. This has little to do with religion, except that it is convenient to portray the conflict in religious terms. Armed resistance is justified by claiming that the dominant culture is encouraging women to go to school and to shave their legs.

Muslims have long told one another that western interference in their affairs is a revival of the crusades, or a continuation of them. This has long puzzled Americans, who think of crusades as organized efforts to cure cancer or stop crime.

Europeans know about the crusades, but they don’t see that medieval Christianity has anything to do with their modern secular states. Nobody wants to recover the holy places in Jerusalem, least of all the pope.

The crusades have been misunderstood or used as propaganda for so long that the myths are deeply embedded. Twenty years ago even historians portrayed them as Christian aggression or European imperialism. That has changed — I had a part in this by persuading several textbook writers that 19th and 20th century imperialism were efforts to acquire natural resources or strategic bases, while the crusades wanted to drive back the Turks from Constantinople and to reopen the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem. (The usual correction was to reduce the space given to the crusades.) Non-historians only remember that they were bad.

Imperialism certainly had its faults. But lumping missionaries and do-gooders together with the exploiters and explorers results in a pretty soggy interpretation of what it was. I particularly objected to using any inaccurate version of history in a debate about modern politics. One can say correctly that Arabs and other Muslims have a view of their history that collapses the present into the past. That is easy wherever societies remain mentally and emotionally where they were centuries ago. The Middle East may in a complex time-warp, with people killing one another over who was supposed to be Mohammed’s successor, but the West of today resembles the Middle Ages very little.

The crusades began as a response to the Turkish invasion that was about to overrun the [Eastern] Roman Empire that we today call the Byzantine Empire. The emperor had asked the pope to recruit mercenary soldiers so that he could drive the Turks back from his capital. This was an unusual request in that he usually considered the pope the equivalent of the anti-Christ, but he was in a desperate situation. Pope Urban II (a name that readers might easily remember) could not call on the Holy Roman emperor because he was trying to make him subordinate to the Church, so he went to France and called for the liberation of Jerusalem. That is how all crusaders became known as Franks.
Western pilgrims had long worked fairly easily with the Arabs, but after the Turks overran the holy city, that changed. The Turks were less accustomed to pilgrims and they disdained the Arabs, many of whom were Christians. The Arabs fought back, so the whole region was in chaos.

This meant that a relatively small Christian army was able to take most of what they called the Holy Land; they properly considered it a miracle. The problem then was how to consolidate the gains and protect them. The distance from Europe to Jerusalem meant that by the time a danger was perceived, it would already be upon them before any armies could be raised in Europe, much less marched to the rescue.

It was an impossible situation, but time and again attacking Muslim armies were driven back, and several times Christian chances for great victories were squandered by incompetent leaders. After a century, the West had only one foothold left: Acre. It fell in 1291. Soon Turkish armies and navies were moving against Europe. In time Tatars were raiding Russia and Poland; the Turks overran the Byzantine Empire, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, and Hungary; and Muslim pirates were descending on coasts from Italy to Iceland. Only in Portugal and Spain were the Christians winning victories. Europeans from that era would have laughed at the thought that they were oppressing Muslim peoples.

This began to change when the Portuguese rounded the Cape and drove Muslim merchants from their bases in Africa and India, then were followed by Dutch, French and British fleets. That, however, had little impact on the ongoing wars in the Balkans and the Ukrainian steppe.

The 1683 coalition of Protestant and Catholic armies that saved Vienna from falling to the Turkish siege (described in my book Bayonets and Scimitars) was as unlikely as the original conquest of Jerusalem. Totally improbable, yet it happened.
Two lessons came out of this long unhappy experience. First, people eventually tire of wars that seem hopeless. Second, that even the most hopeless situation can be turned around.

Most politicians lack the stomach for hard decisions. They like public adulation, and thrive on the symbolisms of power. Few have Churchill’s certainty of being right, and some who do are just flat wrong.

One lesson for us is might be, first, to reject any false comparison of modern politics to the past, then to remember that pulling out of a conflict does not mean that it is over.

Another is to recognize that the jihadists have moved on from complaining about the crusades. Now they take their inspiration from the seventh century blitzkrieg of Mohammed and his successors. It is now once more: convert, or pay taxes, or die. For Jews and Americans they prefer the third choice.

Review Atlas (August 28, 2014), 4.

The murder of King Tut


By William Urban

Eager to read something about the Middle East that isn’t a threat to world peace, such as it is? This 2009 ‘Non-fiction thriller” by James Patterson fits the bill. Not that it’s a great book — it has certainly not thrilled its readers, most of whom have awarded it one star on Amazon (and that, perhaps only because that was the lowest rating available). I am more generous.

It may have helped that I listened to the audio-book from the Warren County Library. The reader was tolerably good, which was important because he had to work in three eras — that of Tutankhamen, that of Howard Carter, who discovered the boy-king’s tomb in 1922, and that of James Patterson, who described the problems he encountered in writing this very short book,

Of the three interlocking plots, I was most interested in Patterson’s, probably because I (and every other historian) have wrestled with the same problems. The greatest difficulty is usually a lack of information. Here it isn’t what happened to Tut — he was clearly done in — but why? Motivation is always a problem, and while the Roman question cui bono (who profits) usually provides an answer, we know that human beings do not always calculate profit and loss before committing a crime. Anger, jealousy, greed, insanity and pure stupidity have to be considered.

Patterson felt quite secure that he could figure this out from the comfort of his study in Los Angeles, while his co-author, Martin Dugard, did the dirty work of traveling to England and Egypt and interviewing people with insights worth knowing. (I was reminded of Nero Wolfe dispatching Archie Goodwin on similar tasks, but without the frequent flyer miles). The dirty work probably wasn’t all that bad, but we never hear much about co-authors or ghost writers; that’s the way of the world. (I hope he put some good meals on his expense account.)

The very audacity of Patterson’s conceit is stunning. Did he actually think that no one had ever considered the possibility that Tut was murdered? Or that nobody had asked who might have done it?

Had he called the novel “historical fiction” there would have been less criticism. After all, we allow fiction writers the freedom to invent suitable dialogue, to expand on well-known human passions as ambition, fear and lust, and we rarely complain when they throw in the occasional sex scene. (If the sex is not required in Patterson’s contract, he apparently has a sign somewhere in his house to remind him to stick a scene in periodically. He tells us that he writes instructors to himself on the tops of pages.)

The screenplay showing a weak king, a strong vizier, and an overbearing general is pretty standard fare; and the beautiful but helpless queen is usually there, too. In Ancient Egypt it was pretty standard, together with the ignorant and fanatical priests. Sort of like modern Egypt, too, I suppose, without the weak king and pretty queen.

The story of Howard Carter and his patron, Lord Carnarvon, is told more accurately. That is because Carter told it first, and told it rather well; and whatever he missed, newspapers and other archeologists filled in. The return of the Tut exhibition to America provided a target audience, and Patterson himself has a large and enthusiastic audience ready to buy anything with his name on it, even when a co-author wrote most of it.

Carter had spent a lifetime in Egypt, getting his start because he had a good eye and an ability to draw fast, then make first-class watercolors of the ancient wall paintings and carvings. He ate little, socialized less, and drank even less. This was good, considering that he had no money of his own and earned very little. The last decades of his life were given to the search for the tomb of King Tut, and when at last he found it, earning thereby instant and immortal fame, it was not long before he and Lord Carnarvon became even more famous as the first victims of the Mummy’s Curse.

Perhaps Patterson is only the most recent.

The most interesting parts of this so-so novel are the insights Patterson gives us into the way he writes novels. Patterson always works on multiple manuscripts at once, flitting from one to the other as ideas come to him and his co-authors provide plot lines. It must drive his publishers crazy to learn that he has stopped working on a manuscript they have paid an advance for, then have him promise that he’ll get right to it as soon as he can, knowing that he will finish at the last possible moment. His various co-authors must feel the same way, only more desperately, because they have more immediate bills to pay than publishers do.

Still, that’s the way it works. Less well-known authors send in a manuscript, then hears nothing until the publisher sends a letter “suggesting” changes and saying when these have to be done by. This is usually yesterday or earlier. It’s the opposite of the old army motto “hurry up and wait.” Authors do the waiting first.

Unlike most writers, Patterson makes heaps of money. That’s because he has the method down pat. He can write fast, he has an instinct for dialogue and pacing, and he usually comes up with a snappy surprise ending.

Alas, that’s the problem here. There is no surprise in the ending.

I’ve never been a James Patterson fan. I’ve read several of his books, but often the violence just makes me turn the CD player off. But this one was intriguing. And it might well be so still to anyone who doesn’t already know the story. So give it a try. After all, you’ve been warned, and the book is short.

Review Atlas (August 21, 2014), 4.

review of book about the CIA


By William Urban

Book titles today seldom tell you what the contents are — that is found in the subtitle, which in this case is, “The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth.”

The author, Mark Mazzetti, is the national security correspondent for the New York Times. That is, there is a tendency to be anti-Bush, anti-CIA, and, until recently, pro-Obama. Mazzetti has won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for stories on Afghanistan and Pakistan. These, like Nobel Peace Prizes, have a political bias, too.

Despite this, he is effective in showing how the CIA has repeatedly gone back and forth between its origins in the WWII era OSS and its function of coordinating information collection and analysis. The heart of information gathering used to be clipping newspaper articles and filing them for quick retrieval for when someone asks, “Who is this SOB I’m hearing about?” Today this is computerized, but the principle is the same.

Mazzetti shows that after 9/11 the CIA once again changed from being an intelligence organization (he uses the word “spy”) to a military one, with a world-wide reach, operating in the shadows, and killing by proxy or using drones. Under Bush the process was a “hammer”; under Obama it is a “scalpel”. Bush’s CIA wanted prisoners to interrogate; Obama’s just killed suspects.

“Knife” refers to old-fashioned cloak and dagger operations, but since human intelligence had been largely replaced by technology, that was impractical. Moreover, Bush and Obama both preferred using a bomb in tribal regions of countries with no effective governmental control of its hinterland; murdering a terrorist in a Paris alley would get too much publicity.

The CIA had been largely neutered under Bill Clinton and might have remained so except for Osama bin Laden, but once the decision was made to hit the 9/11 terrorists wherever they were, no organization but the CIA was ready to do it.

The CIA had the language skills, the local knowledge, the experience in working with foreign intelligence agencies, and a tradition of doing unpleasant but necessary tasks. The military, in contrast, was still thinking of massive tank battles and hunting submarines; the ability to work with irregular forces was long gone, and the budget was being cut. Anti-war activists wanted to use police and to try terrorists in American courts; arresting the suspects, however, was impossible. The Taliban mocked American requests to turn over the al-Qaida leaders, “What can they do? Sue us?

Special Forces, the CIA and private security firms quickly wiped those smirks off Taliban faces, but winning the conventional war did not bring peace and harmony, much less good government. Mazzetti’s book deals largely with Bush’s wars, since that was the era when we learned the hard way that we could not rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq as we once did Germany, Japan and Italy; he concentrated on the difficulties presented by Pakistan Secret Service, the ISI, which saw the Taliban as both dangerous and useful in confronting India, while the Americans would soon go home. There were also private armies, infighting between the CIA, the military, and local leaders, and the public’s expectation of quick results, then coming home.
Despite all the problems, some of which were a lack of coordination by the various organizations and jealousy of one another, by the end of 2008 Bush and Obama alike had concluded that both countries were sufficiently pacified to beginning planning a withdrawal. In December of 2012 Obama announced, “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq,”

Awkwardly, this was just the moment when Mazzetti was finishing his book. For him the greatest American problem was the impact of drone strikes on Muslim public opinion. ”Fire from the Sky” was counter-productive, he said, and should be ended. That is essentially irrelevant now that the failures of the Obama foreign policy are visible everywhere, with Muslims openly killing Muslims across the Islamic world. The heart of this swift change beat in Syria.

When the Arab Spring appeared in 2011 peaceful demonstrations began against the Syrian government; when Bashar al-Assad sent in tanks and helicopters, an armed resistance fought back. President Obama announced that al-Assad had to go. Then he did nothing. Meanwhile, after dictators were overthrown across the region, radicals took over; once again, nothing. The same happened in the Syrian war. Iranians and Hezbollah came in, then jihadists who wanted to establish an Islamic state, but not the US.
These radicals — the ISIS (later called the ISIF, and now the Caliphate) — are more radical than al-Qaida. First fostered by Saudi and Qatar money to overthrow the pro-Iranian government of al-Assad, then by Kuwaiti oil millionaires, this June the jihadists crossed the border into Iraq, making more rapid gains than anyone had thought possible.

This makes Mazzetti’s book less relevant that it was when the Obama administration was following many of the New York Times recommendations; now that we have a world without significant American leadership, with a weaker military, and no guiding principles that allies can count on, the partisan quarreling over the role of the CIA seems, as they say, so yesterday. Pakistan, which Mazzetti depicted as always following its own agenda, not America’s, is now attacking its Taliban. Saudi Arabia, whose money financed the religious schools that trained the radicals, wants to kill jihadists before they can move on Mecca, but doesn’t trust its own military to do it.

The Caliphate’s massacres of Iraqi Christians and minorities has horrified everyone except hard-liners in the UN, Qatar and Turkey who think that Israel is to blame for everything. Elsewhere the Sunni and Shia worlds are being drawn together to resist the Caliphate in northern Iraq, which is flush with money, weapons, and a sense of invincibility. After a propaganda film boasted that the Caliphate’s flag will fly over the White House, administration spokesmen began to speak in hushed tones about the hundred or so Americans fighting with Caliphate and the even more numerous Europeans.

Now, after waiting for months, Obama has authorized limited bombing and drone strikes, but our aircraft carrier is far from the battlefield; meanwhile, the Kurds have almost no modern weapons, while the Caliphate has captured much of what Obama left behind for the Malaki government. There is no base for American operations, no air field, and hardly any Iraqi government. The Way of the Knife is still worth reading, but as history, not as a model for future action.

Review Atlas (August 14, 2014), 4.

Iraq Again and Forever


By William Urban

Now that it appears that Baghdad won’t fall this week (maybe later), and that Iran will get its bomb eventually, and that Hamas will continue to demand the destruction of Israel, what can anyone say about this mess that hasn’t been said over and over again? There is plenty of blame to go around, but some of the arguments remind me of the proverbial cup falling off the table and breaking. Did the careless kid knock it off, or the mother who left the cup too close to the edge, or the father who put it on the table, or the distant company that should have made the cup stronger?

Many people seem confused about the news from the Middle East. This partially reflects a reluctance to read newspapers or listen to news programs. I know intelligent individuals who are proud of this. Is this a way of saying that they already know everything worth knowing? Or that they just don’t care? My class studying terrorism last year, a group of bright kids, got their information from the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. I guess that’s better than nothing, but I really don’t understand how anyone can get the jokes if they don’t know what the comedians are referring to. Back when I attended professional baseball games, I was told that I couldn’t follow the game without a program.

I am much less critical of people who are working two jobs who don’t vote, or even having one job and a family. But that doesn’t explain why only half of the eligible voters bother to show up at the polls. Maybe it’s a question of priorities, maybe a principled decision that they shouldn’t vote on issues they don’t understand. I can buy that. The world is complicated. I am reluctant, however, to agree with young people who say that voting is a waste of time and that their opinions have no impact.

Those arguments are not the issue. We face a major challenge to the world order and our way of life. Shouldn’t that have priority over attending a Rave event?

Those who do vote often do so carelessly. Many people just take the easy way out. For example, beloved relatives who vote for candidates based on their looks, accent or religion; or the TV addict who believes the last minute scare ads. Then there’s the aged woman my wife remembers from being a judge at a primary election — she insisted that she wanted to vote Republican and no one could make her understand that all the candidates on the primary ballot were Republicans.

This explains the American understanding of Middle Eastern issues. Over there it is much less calm and rational.

Once you cut through the details, the conflict in Iraq is partly a struggle between religious communities, partly about ethnicity, but perhaps even more about how much impact modernism should have on tribal communities. This is the subject of my next book, Wars on the Periphery, though I use examples from the 1700s to make my case, with references to modern problems.

It had been often noted that various traditions in modern Islam — honor killings, female mutilation, terror attacks on civilians, suicide bombings — have no place in the theology of the Religion of Peace. That is both true and irrelevant, because nobody in Iraq or Syria or Palestine wants to sit down for a philosophical discussion.

Many Americans are tired of being the world policeman, and ask why Middle Eastern problems should affect America. 9/11 should have taught us that this is not something we can just ignore. We might not be interested, but it will find ways to get our attention.

First of all, gas prices will go up. In January of 2008 Barack Obama told us that he would make gasoline prices “skyrocket” and that his cap and trade proposal would make the coal industry bankrupt. How high would gas have to go to make his green energy plans affordable? A lot more than the $1.91 price of early 2009. Congress, then controlled totally by Democrats, balked at the cap and trade proposal. So, with pen and phone he has since limited our production of oil and gas as best he could.

It was obvious even then that the nations which most wished the United States ill — Russia, Iran, Venezuela—relied on high gas prices to avoid bankruptcy. Iraq benefitted, of course, and Barack Obama, like Bush before him, expected the 100 billion dollars in oil exports to pay the costs of running the Iraq government — and distributions to the Sunnis and Kurds to keep them quiet. That would allow him to pull the troops out and forget about the region.

Secondly, nobody in the Middle East has been listening to our government-sponsored praise of diversity and multiculturalism. Instead, the mobs and some of the governments want unity and conformity. No dissent, no Christians, no Jews, and certainly no atheists or gays. Awkwardly, Bashir al-Assad’s Syria is beginning to look better than the rebels, but aside from his dictatorial ways and duplicitous diplomacy, he has some very nasty allies and supporters. He sponsored the murderous ISIS as long as it was only killing Americans. Then it turned on him.

Israel looks good except to the media commentators and university professors who see the Jews as the new Nazis. This truly puzzles me. I remember that Nazis made homosexuals wear pink Stars of David, and today the only country in the Middle East that allows Gay Pride Parades is Israel. Just try that anywhere else. (If you want to try, I’ll contribute a few dollars for your air fare to Saudi Arabia or Iran, but please buy one way, because I think you’ll miss the return flight.)

Third, we don’t want terrorists to have a state where they can prepare for expansion and for attacks on the West. We saw what happened with the premature pull-out from Iraq. Now we worry about the same thing happening in Afghanistan.

It’s not hopeless over there. Pakistan has finally learned that its support of the Taliban has a high price, and they are killing more Taliban than Obama ever did with his drones. The new Egyptian government stopped sponsoring jihad, and sentenced hundreds of fundamentalists to death; and the Saudis, Jordanians and Turks are aware that they cannot count on the Americans to do everything for them. Perhaps not anything.

Review Atlas (August 7, 2014), 4.

The Last Days of Peace 1914


By William Urban

Fifty years ago I met a young German who soon became a close friend. This past Christmas he sent me a copy of The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went To War in 1914. I was very familiar with Christopher Clark’s earlier work on Prussia, so I started in on the 695 pages, reading a few pages each evening and finishing on June 28, the day of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, the event that set everything in motion.

For many years this event had seemed far away, but when the centennial of that assassination came, I realized that my meeting Peter in Berlin in 1964 was almost exactly half-way between the marching of armies into the Great War and the tumultuous events of today.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas we were trying to understand how binding alliances had led to the First World War and the inability make alliances which could stand up to tyrants had brought on the Second. The only common link seemed to be that some very bright people made some very bad decisions.

As it happened, my first dissertation topic was on the outbreak of war in 1914. When my professor moved to Rice University, I ended up with another dissertation topic, but the reading I had done was good preparation for following Clark’s book and several others that have appeared recently. Most importantly, I could see that Clark knew much more about the diplomacy of that July than could have been known earlier.

Britons and Frenchmen blamed Germany for starting the war — logically so, because it was the German invasion of Belgium that began the slaughter of a generation of their young men; consequently, they made War Guilt a central point in the Versailles Treaty. With the blockade having created starvation in Germany, they knew the new Republic’s government would sign anything, no matter how disgusting; besides, the army had surrendered its weapons in return for an armistice. The German people, who knew that there was plenty of blame to spread around, were outraged. That falsity of the War Guilt clause and the requirement to pay reparations for war damages combined with the Great Depression to help Hitler to power.

It’s not that Germans were passive onlookers to the outbreak of war. Certainly the Kaiser’s boasting and posturing had created a hostile environment. Then there was Fritz Fischer’s Germany’s Aims in the First World War (a more accurate translation of the German title was The Grasp for World Power), which appeared in 1964 just before I enrolled in the University of Hamburg. (I was unaware that Fischer taught there.) This demonstrated that many influential Germans looked forward to war as a means of winning land, profits and fame. Fischer very sensibly left the country for a while, so I never heard him lecture. His ideas have since been cooled down, but they are not forgotten.

Clark reports that the German government felt trapped. Once the Russian army mobilized, the Kaiser’s ministers could not wait — they had to defeat France before the Russian armies could attack. Nothing new in that.

The war had actually begun in the East. When Austria demanded that Serbia arrest the men behind the assassination, the Serbs put an investigation off, then denied everything. They were encouraged in this by Russia and France, so the situation was much like that of Saddam Hussein in 2003. And the results were the same — the Serbs, who almost agreed to a joint inquiry, were at the last moment persuaded to say no. War followed.

The British, who had dithered throughout all the complicated last-minute diplomacy, came to the aid of France once German troops entered Belgium on their way toward Paris. There was little celebration, Clark said. This was important, since historians have long stressed the public excitement at the end of the long building war tensions — there is a famous picture of the crowd in Vienna, with Hitler celebrating with everyone else. The arms race, the repeated crises, the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, had prepared every public for the likelihood of war.

However, what underlay the screaming headlines of newspapers and patriotic speeches was more important: the Russians had persuaded themselves that the Germans were out to destroy their empire; the Austrians, with more reason, felt that neighbors (Serbia, Rumania, Italy) were ready to seize territories, and the Hungarians and Czechs wanted independence; the French wanted Alsace-Lorraine back; and the Germans believed that time was running out — if they let their enemies get stronger, the chances were that their new Second Empire would become a memory. As for the British, until this moment they had seen Russia as the national enemy; also, if fifteen years earlier Germany had not foolishly built a high seas fleet, Britain would have never have moved toward an understanding with colonial rival France.

Fear, paranoia and hatred persuaded the political and military leaders that they had no choices left; only their enemies did; and when the enemies stood firm in their positions, the only option left was war. When the Austrians prepared to declare war on Serbia, the Russians mobilized, and there was no turning back for anyone.

Clark dismisses several silly ideas that have arisen recently, like Britain having angered Germany by trying to force free trade on the continent. Or the Kaiser having plotted the war, when the worst that can be said is that he ended Bismarck’s policies that discouraged either Russia or Austria-Hungary from starting a war.

Serbia, an expanding power that encouraged terrorists, was inept rather than malicious; Was Serbia wrong to want to bring all Serbs into the kingdom? Clark goes farther, to say that the search for a villain is to assume that people knew what they were doing. To the contrary, they were sleepwalking.

Americans don’t remember much of this. In fact, they never knew it. When I had students in Sarajevo in 1986, most had never heard of the assassination that led to the war. The same was true of Americans in 1914, but 116,000 would perish in what Wilson called the War to End All Wars. Many more were maimed or gassed or mentally injured. That is much less than any other major participant — I remember the simple memorial in downtown Hamburg: “40,000 sons of this city sacrificed their lives for you.”

That is why there is commemoration of the war, but no celebration.

Review Atlas (July 31, 2014), 4.

Roads to Berlin

It seemed logical for me to write this week about a place
was long Ground Zero of the Cold War. No longer.
But, I’ve occasionally wondered, what the situation would be
if the Germans had kept their fourteen million forced refugees from WWII in
camps until they could return to their homes in the east.


By William Urban

This 2012 memoir by Cees Nooteboom reflects an almost forgotten form of literature, belles lettres. That is, his book is meant to read more for the beauty of its passages and its elegantly phrased thoughts than for any information in it. It is translated from Dutch, which means that some of that beauty is probably lost. Not that the translation is bad. The English reads well enough, but there are always nuances. Often the best translations are not word for word, but intended to convey a thought or a mood. The Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward FitzGerald is, supposedly, more FitzGerald than a translation, but it is still great poetry and philosophy, even though not read much today.

I got Roads to Berlin because the reviews were so good, but also because the bulk of these essays reflected his experiences in Berlin between 1989 and 1991, when I was following the collapse of the Wall closely. (Jackie and I were there at the very end of the process, so I have in my office some scraps from the Wall and a one-day visa from the last day the German Democratic Republic existed).

Cees Nooteboom was a well-known novelist who was invited to West Berlin for a period of study by the German Academic Exchange. I’ve had a couple of these grants myself, each resulting in a book that was translated into several languages (but not yet into Dutch). Such grants are good for reaching out to people who might otherwise be hostile or indifferent to your nation. A lot of people felt that way about Germany.

Nooteboom’s earliest memories were those of Nazi aircraft bombing his city, then of grey-clad soldiers riding through the streets. His father died in an Allied air attack that would not have happened if Holland had not been occupied by the Germans. Consequently, he had not spent much time in Germany and his command of the language was fairly weak.

His language ability and his understanding of the various peoples of Germany improved greatly in these two years. As the title indicates, he took more than one route to the city that became united Germany’s capital; it was not easy and never pleasant to go through the East German police state and almost impossible to travel in it, so he visited other, very different parts of Germany. His descriptions of Bavaria, Swabia, Saxony and even Hamburg (where I attended the university) probably affected me differently than they would other readers, since nostalgia has a power that no imagination can quite equal. Not to play down imagination, because to do so would be the equivalent of saying that reading is a waste of time. But to relive mentally former lifetimes.

Particularly evocative were his descriptions of the palaces of Frederick the Great in Potsdam. He must have gone there on a tourist bus, because until the summer of 1991 that was the only way to visit them. (Crossing the Glienicke Bridge with friends on the first day of free travel remains one of my favorite memories.) But Nooteboom was right in saying that the neglected structures and parks reflected not only the long-gone Prussian kingdom that nobody wanted back, but the inability of the Socialist state to do anything right. When I saw the mold on the paintings of the royal collection, my heart almost stopped.

A decade later, when I took students there, the pictures had been restored and there was work on all the buildings. My students were not all that impressed, I fear, but they might be when they look back on what they had seen and the nostalgia factor kicks in.

Equally poignant were his reflections on the now-vanished Palace of the Republic, the ultra-modern governing center for the communist government — the parliament, two auditoriums, a theater, art galleries, thirteen restaurants and a bowling alley. It had a multitude of problems, but the worst was asbestos. The building could have been saved, but architecturally it did not fit on Unter den Linden. But that had been the reason why the Communists built it, to illustrate their confidence in the future. Now its vacant lot may be filled by a reconstructed Crown Prince’s palace (suitably reconfigured internally as an up-to-date office building or something not yet defined). The Palace of the Republic was, whatever its short-comings, a part of the city’s past that is disappearing as quickly as the last traces of the Wall.

The last time I had students at the Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie it was difficult to make them imagine what the street had looked like twenty years before. I had crossed here and at Friedrichstrasse numerous times, and none of those experiences can be forgotten. (Jackie remembers the long stare by the border guard just before midnight that finally turned her exhaustion into a laugh, after which he handed back her passport with the half-laughing comment about the picture, “Ja, das bist Du.” The quote may not be fully accurate, but the memory is.) If the art historian on one trip had not confirmed what I was saying about the Wall, and added some memories of his own, the students might have thought I had made it all up.

Indeed, some post-modern scholars consider all history an invented narrative. Which is obviously true, since nobody can list everything that happens to even to one individual in day, much less what happens in a nation over years. But the historian’s narrative has to be based on fact.

A writer’s perspective is also limited by his sources, which may or may not be typical. Nooteboom described politics as seen on TV rather than close-up encounters, and his conversations with Berliners were random, but they corresponded to my experiences and reading.

A reunited Germany was not universally welcomed in 1991. Not in the East, not in the West, much less in all of Europe. Yet today one cannot imagine a united Europe without a strong Germany. Nooteboom concludes with a discouraging chapter on the failure of Europe to emulate the German miracle, and on the increasing reluctance of the German taxpayer to support European integration. It would have been interesting to hear his opinions as to what the German victory in World Cup will mean.

Review Atlas (July 24, 2014), 4.

Book Review


By William Urban

As of this writing Edward Klein’s Blood Feud, The Clintons vs. the Obamas is selling ahead of Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices. That is easy to understand. One audio-book chapter of Hard Choices was offered free to all listeners. Let’s say that Hillary does not have a future career as a reader. I almost fell asleep, which is understandable. Reviewers say that there isn’t much in the book to keep anyone awake. Certainly nothing new in it. And the book tour has become the literary equivalent of the ObamaCare rollout (or the long ago presentation of Hillarycare).

Klein, in contrast, is very reader-friendly. Twelve point type with generous margins and one and a half spacing allows the eye to race quickly to the end of each short chapter, enticing the reader to lay the book aside easily, then pick it up again when time allows. His style is breezy, his many quotes to the point. I read a number of reviews by progressive critics — far from debunking the comments, they read like advertisements. Maybe that was just the reviewers, who so obviously form into a protective cordon around every Democrat president (except maybe Jimmy Carter) that their judgment has been affected.

Klein has taken hold of two of the most interesting families of our era, very complex individuals without the close family members who used to be the embarrassment of Democratic presidents. Republican presidents don’t have brothers and sisters who lend themselves so well to vicious gossip. Who remembers either mother of Obama or Clinton? Or their fathers? Or siblings? Anyway, don’t worry. Klein ignores them.

Klein gives us a classic tale of political rivals who hate each other but cannot make that public. The Clintons consider Barack Obama an amateur (a quote that gave Klein the title of his last best-seller), while the Obamas disdain their rivals’ willingness to make compromises rather than push harder toward making the United States into a more equal, greener and less warlike nation. Each wants, in short, a nation that would allow people like them to rise to the top, except that, being at the top, they don’t want to share the pinnacle with anyone. There is a lot of egotism here, too much for the two families to co-exist.

But wait, there’s more! The Clintons also dislike and mistrust each other. The Obamas also. Separate bedrooms for both families, separate vacations, and plenty of yelling. Barack Obama gets the worst of this, because Michelle is joined by Valerie Jarrett to browbeat him into making decisions, to criticize his reluctance to look into the details of any program or policy, and his eagerness to get out on the golf course or just give a speech. Obama is also losing his control over the media. By refusing to give real interviews and by repeating obvious untruths, he has offended reporters as deeply as he did supporters and donors by ignoring them once the election was past. Oprah, for example.

Nowhere was this truer than his relations with the Clintons. In early 2012, according to Klein, Obama’s re-election seemed doubtful. His two principal advisors recommended ways to turn this around. David Pfouffe (pronounced Fluff, but meaning hard-as-nails political savvy) said that they had to turn to the Clintons; Valerie Jarrett would rather lose than ask for help.

In the end Obama reluctantly reached out. The unspoken agreement was that Bill Clinton would campaign for the president in 2012, if he would campaign for Hillary in 2016. Valerie Jarrett went along, but only after vowing that once the election was over, all promises were off.

The campaign was melodramatic, and Clinton probably made the difference. At least he thought he did. And also, perhaps, Obama did. Thus jealousy was added to the many disagreements on policies and tactics. And, as Jarrett had recommended, Obama quickly cut the Clintons out of the party’s future as best he could.

Already there was blood in the sand — Benghazi. The true story is complicated, but at its heart was a CIA program to recover weapons from Libyan jihadists and deliver them to Syrian rebels. This was very close to Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal that had brought him so close to impeachment. Obama tried to get Hillary to go on the talk shows to explain that the ambassador’s murder was not by al Qaida, but by demonstrators against a video. Bill, however, said that the story was so obviously false that it would destroy her chances in 2016. So she declined. Obama then asked Petraeus, who said that the talking points were untrue. Finally, the president got Susan Rice, who was jealous that Hillary had become Secretary of State instead of her. The rest is history, except that the story was put on back pages until the election was over.

Since then the relationship became worse. Hillary had disagreed with many Obama policies, but she went along because Bill warned her that she would be blamed for destroying the party if she spoke her mind. After the election she shared her thoughts with close friends and colleagues who were willing to speak with Klein as long as he didn’t mention their names.

The Obama inner circle is much smaller and much tighter, but there are many Democrats out there who think that he has made hash of the presidency. These folks may not like or trust Hillary, but she’s the only candidate out there who can beat any Republican yet to be named.

Republicans will probably enjoy the book except for the feeling that we have reached a political low rivaling the Julio-Claudian emperors of Rome. Not quite so, of course, but not a pretty picture. Democrats will have to decide whether they want to back a winner or someone who could attract only left wing zealots, or even whether the whole business isn’t too discouraging to look into more deeply.

I won’t tell you about the last chapters, since that would spoil everything. Anyway, Klein’s predictions for the future are worth the price of the book. Let’s just say that between incompetence and unpleasantness he will come down for Hillary every time.

Review Atlas (July 17, 2014), 4.

Monmouth College and the World Cup


By William Urban

When I was growing up there were only three sports — football, basketball and baseball. Tennis wasn’t quite a sport; more a pastime for elites or kids who didn’t like get knocked down. Bowling was just fun, as was swimming. Track existed, but after the city-wide grade school Olympics were discontinued, everybody lost interest. The local school for blacks wasn’t invited, and if it had been, its high-stepping marching band would have won first place every year.

As for watching sports on television, there wasn’t much of that. If you wanted spectator sports, you traveled to the big city or turned on the radio. If your town had minor league baseball, as mine did, you were lucky.

As a result, I never expected to like soccer. I was introduced to the game by a German exchange student who later took me to a couple matches in Hamburg. I can’t say I was impressed much — get the ball to a wing, center it, and see if anyone can get a head on it. The rules seemed designed to suppress scoring, as indeed they do.

It was only after I came to Monmouth College that I became involved with the game. In the late Sixties a third of the student body came from the east coast, and, naturally, a few had played soccer in high school. In order to form a soccer club, they had to have a faculty advisor. I was available.

Happily, the local YMCA director, Marc Waggoner, was willing to assist in caring for injured players. It was impossible to treat sprained ankles and keep an eye on the game, and nothing is worst for a coach than to be called to deal with a crisis on the field without a clue of what had happened. Marc started the current Y soccer program, using soccer club members to coach the teams. John Garrett, I remember, continued to coach years after graduation. Though Marc left in 1971, the program continued.

It was hard to make the game popular. Young people were there, enthusiastically so, but school budgets were limited and die-hard football fans were hostile. Even when junior high football was discontinued regionally, there was no interest in replacing it with soccer. I was able to get the soccer club made into a varsity sport only by agreeing to serve as coach without pay. Fortunately, Bobby Woll and Bill Reichow treated me very well in the years that followed.

That did not mean that everything was easy. The equipment manager, Murph, got us recycled basketball uniforms and Rebekah Kloppel put numbers on tee-shirts. Over the years Juan Fernandez, Iskandar Najar and George Converse shared the coaching duties; Lyman Williams and Peter Kloeppel laid out the field and occasionally served as emergency referees. Even getting a field to play on was difficult. Like the old ball field at Lincoln School, which we used for a while. The college brought over a load of dirt and shovels, and part of every practice session was given to making the field more level.

I made good friends, especially Jorge Prats, the legendary Knox coach. He once took a joint team to Barcelona. I couldn’t afford to go, but the Monmouth players had a great time.

There were almost always one or two women on the team. Where else, I reasoned, would future women coaches come from? Later, in 1992-3, together with Fred Keller I helped get the women’s soccer club started. When the team went varsity in 1994, I was teaching in Europe, but we were lucky to get Simon Cordery as coach, then Barry McNamara.

Which brings us to the World Cup. I was a bit prejudiced. When I lived in Italy I saw a number of international matches in person, when I was in Germany a good friend had me over to watch the games on what seemed to be a huge color set — it must have been 24 inches or so. Well, Italy went out. Mexico — well, it was hard to cheer on a team when the government was holding a Marine in prison for what should have been a non-offense. The USA? Well, Klinsmann was right in saying that the team wasn’t playing up to its potential. A bit more of that flurry of enthusiasm at the end of the Belgium game would have made quite a difference.

Klinsmann emphasized fitness, physicality. I sympathize with that. I rarely had players who knew anything about the game before coming to Monmouth College, so the only chance we had to stay in any game was to hustle more, to welcome contact, and to never quit.

Klinsmann had introduced that to the German team in 2006. It showed in the quarter-final with Brazil, which had not lost a home game since 1975! It took a few minutes to get adjusted, then the goals just started falling in. The game also illustrated the importance of morale — when things start going wrong, everyone just stands around. Still, 7-1 could have been worse. Germany played ball control, only rarely pressing forward to score.

Soccer doesn’t lend itself to TV. The beauty of the game — everyone except the goalie playing the ball up and down the big field, back and forth, and ballet-like combinations — doesn’t fit on the screen well. To be in a stadium with a huge crowds is an incredible experience. It may seem that little is happening, but everyone knows that in a matter of seconds, there could be a frenzied assault on the goal; and scoring is so rare that everyone is filled with anticipation or terror. The combination of individual skills and teamwork, with no particular emphasis on height or weight, should make soccer the premier American sport.

Meanwhile, the “beautiful game” remains more popular abroad, especially among the poor, while in the US it has long been limited to the rich and immigrants. It has its faults: referees have to decide whether a foul should be ignored or punished harshly, and the offside rule limits scoring. However, weak teams love the present system, and they have most of the votes. Fans of weak teams know that an upset is always possible, and while the World Cup worked its way down to traditional superpowers, Costa Rica almost made it into the quarter-finals.

Review-Atlas (July 10, 2014), 4.