Lawrence in Arabia

Our Jordanian guide told us about T. E. Lawrence and Jordan being surrounded by Israel and powerful Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt. Steve, a person in our tour group, suggested reading Lawrence in Arabia. Knowing little beyond seeing Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole, I took Steve’s advice.

Lawrence in Arabia

Lawrence in Arabia was an eye-opener and sobering. The Middle East is important, and Lawrence played an outsized role. The British looked down on the Arabs. British diplomats lied to the Arabs to encourage their revolt, without intending to fulfill the Arab self-determination they promised.

Above are dunes of red sand at Wadi Rum, Jordan, where Lawrence passed through and where much of Lawrence of Arabia was filmed.

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Water is for Fighting Over

The American Southwest has always been parched, so water supplies become overextended as farms and cities grow. John Fleck’s Water is for Fighting Over examines legal and political fights and settlements for water from the Colorado River.


From this experience we can find lessons learned and paths to share water.


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Death Valley: Wildflowers of Badwater Road

Although Death Valley averages only 2″ of rain a year, California native plants have adapted and put forth beautiful blooms when it rains. In October 2015, a large rainstorm at the south end of the park washed out the road. On February 18, as part of our Mojave Desert road trip, we drove to the south end of Badwater Road to see the resulting wildflower ‘superbloom‘.

This post covers the wildflowers we saw at the south end of Death Valley, such as the desert five-spot shown above. All these plants are part of the creosote bush scrub community. The terrain is dominated by creosote bush and is flat, covering most of the valley floor and alluvial fan.

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The Battle of Ap Bac

I was struck by the description of this 1963 battle from Fodor’s See It Vietnam, because it seems so similar to current events in Iraq and Syria. From page 37 of the Fodor’s book, a travel guidebook for Vietnam,

In January 1963 at Ap Bac, not far from the town of My Tho in the Mekong Delta,the Communists scored their first significant victory in the south.

Facing 2,000 well-armed troops of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), a force of just 300 to 400 People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) inflicted heavy casualties, killing 63 ARVN and three Americans, wounding 109 ARVN and three Americans, and downing five helicopters.

American advisors were scathing about the performance of their South Vietnamese allies, and it was this defeat that led them to conclude that the ARVN needed the direct intervention of US troops.

Implementation of this began in 1964 and by late 1965 American combat units began activity in Vietnam.

The Iraqi Army was routed by ISIS this summer. This week the NY Times wrote “Iraq Army Woos Deserters Back to War on ISIS“:

The Iraqi military command has begun a campaign to re-enlist soldiers and officers who abandoned their units, a crucial step in its effort to rebuild an army that has been routed in battle after battle by Islamic State jihadists.

I don’t know how American advisors view the Iraqi army, but scathing might come to mind for an army that melted away in combat and then campaigns to take back deserters in order to strengthen itself.

After the ISIS advances US escalated its involvement, increasing advisors and air strikes.

From the NY Times, “The 130 additional advisers brings the number of American military personnel in Iraq to more than 1,000, some three years after the last combat troops left the country.”

The US is leading air strikes on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. From earlier this week,

President Obama ordered the launch of 47 Tomahawk cruise missiles last Monday night from the USS Philippine Sea and USS Arleigh Burke, all aimed at targets in Syria as part of what he calls a military campaign to “degrade and destroy” the terrorist group ISIS.

Historically, the Pentagon has purchased roughly 200 Tomahawks a year from manufacturer Raytheon, at about $1.4 million per missile. But Obama slashed that number to 100 for all of 2015 – just double what the Navy fired into Syria in one day.

Tomahawk missiles are expensive; moreover, the current rate of usage is unsustainable and unplanned. Attacking ISIS in Syria is a significant escalation and direct intervention by the US. Similarly, the US bombed North Vietnamese forces in Laos and Cambodia in the American War, as the Vietnamese now call it. But at least Tomahawk missiles don’t risk American military personnel being killed or captured, as would adding advisors or using airplanes that might go down in enemy territory.

There are parallels between today’s Middle East and the Vietnam of 50 years ago: a dysfunctional ally and US intervention as the response. Time will tell what lessons the US has learned in the past 50 years.

New History of Southeast Asia

A New History of Southeast Asia is a 2010 book written by five professors in the History Department of the National University of Singapore. The book provides a recent perspective of Southeast Asia from the viewpoint of Southeast Asians instead of Westerners.

The authors specialize in different regions of Southeast Asia, so the book provides depth for each country. The book is organized by historical period and then by country, making it easier to compare how people reacted to external influences for a given period, but harder to follow a country through time. The narrative for each country contains so many political groups and individuals, that I had trouble seeing the forest for the trees. Nonetheless, here’s my non-expert summary of the book.

The ancient civilizations of Southeast Asia did not leave written records. Thus we are left with prehistory, the domain of the archeologist, and proto-history, the period when a particular region has yet to produce its own written record but does at least appear in foreign sources. Chinese started writing about Southeast Asia in the third and fourth centuries; Indians starting writing shortly after that.

The early influence was primarily Indian, with Buddhism the main religion for most of Southeast Asia. Chinese spread into Vietnam, and Arabs into Indonesia.

The peak of Southeast Asian civilization occurred between 800 and 1300. Kingdoms were larger, more advanced, and lasted centuries — longer than before. For example, Angkor, the largest Southeast Asian kingdom of its time, lasted from 800 until the fifteenth century.

Arab trading ships reached China in the ninth century. The Chinese sent massive fleets to Malaysia and the Indian Ocean but stopped this in 1433 due to Mongol attacks. The Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch later moved into the region to pursue spices and trade with China. Chinese emigrants settled throughout Southeast Asia.

The Europeans established colonies to exploit local resources and enrich the mother country, subduing locals with war and politics. Eventually, the Dutch colonized the East Indies, the Spanish the Philippines, the French Indochina, and the British Burma and Malaysia.

The politics of the colonial and post-colonial period is characterized by religious, ethnic, military/civilian, and political factions competing and collaborating with each other and the colonial powers. The individuals, groups, and alliances keep changing, but the struggle for power and money doesn’t change.

This passage from page 447 describes the mood after the 9/11 attack and the ensuing world sympathy.

But the Bush administration dispelled this sympathy when its ‘global war on terror’ led to the much-criticized invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, many thought that, whatever was said to the contrary, the neo-conservatives of America were launching a Christian crusade against Islam.

The American media reports radical charges of Americans as crusaders, but I’ve never heard an American say or imply this. I viewed this crusader talk as extremist propaganda. But the passage must reflect the authors’ collective view — many Muslims in Southeast Asia believe that the US is launching a Christian crusade against Islam.

Rescuing Da Vinci

Rescuing Da Vinci tells the story of art seized by the Germans during World War II and how the art was recovered by a special group. Rescuing Da Vinci is the basis for the movie The Monuments Men.

As a young man, Adolf Hitler applied to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna but was rejected. Later, as the leader of Germany, he dreamed of establishing an art museum in his birthplace, Linz, Austria.

As Germany conquered countries during World War II, Hitler had units hunt down and collect art. Many European museums prepared before hostilities started by closing and moving their art to hiding places.

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is included in the book, but the painting was never seized by the Germans. Like many other pieces owned by the Louvre, it was packed up and hidden. The French moved it six times during the war to evade seizure.

Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Art held by private collectors didn’t fare as well. For example, Vermeer’s The Astronomer was owned by a Jewish banker in Paris, and the Germans seized it. The Astronomer was eventually found it a mine in Austria and returned to the owner. The painting was subsequently sold to the French government as part of a settlement of inheritance taxes, and it now hangs in The Louvre.

The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer
The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer

Rescuing Da Vinci has lots of good pictures of World War II to help tell the story. Two paintings by Hitler aren’t bad; photos of devastated German cities are sad. The book discusses one da Vinci painting rescued. Shown on the book cover, it was in Poland and unknown to me, so the title is a stretch. The story is decent but less dramatic than the movie. Rescuing Da Vinci will appeal to folks who saw the movie and want to learn more, but there’s not much more because most of the best art was successfully secreted away.