Friday, January 29, 2016

Getting my Irish up

I can see my well-worn copy of "The Year of the French" from where I am sitting right now. It was published in 1979, nearly 200 years after the events it portrays. I was a college freshman. I bought it in hardcover, though I hardly had money for whiskey.

I read it that year and I read it again every year – I’m due to begin again mid-March. Flanagan's book is inextricably tied up in whatever precious sense of Irishness I have been able to reclaim from my fractured personal pedigree as an Irish/German half-breed bastard raised by Czechs. In that, and in the facility with which I can now finish its sentences, it is an old and important friend. Indeed, so a good a friend that in kindness, I now leave the first edition on the shelf and read it on my Kindle.

In briefest precis, the book is the story of the '98 Rising, fomented by United Irishmen and a host of other lovers of liberty, men and women of a diversity that will surprise those used to thinking of the more modern variety of Troubles in strictly sectarian terms. Framed by the story of a fictional poet and hedge school master -- a man with equal affections for the jug, comfortable women and Greek, but having no particular inclination toward revolution -- it is a towering work, a staggering literary accomplishment. It is huge and funny and tragic and just so fookin' good.

And that would be enough. Dayenu, to steal the perfect term from another people of words and woe. Except that while that would enough, that's not all. What boggles the mind to this day, what fills me with a mixture of powerful awe and no little writer’s envy, is that this was Flanagan's first novel. The utter gall of the man, to write such a work as a first thing. Dayenu. Except even that isn't all. Because I will read TYOTF with special attention this year, as I will be 56 – the age Flanagan was when he published it. His first novel – this novel  at 56!

With the exception of its protagonist, the TYOTF comes under the ambit of mostly true historical fiction. Nothing you will learn in it is false, even if there are those -- mostly British, I'd expect -- critics who might complain of what it leaves alone. But frankly, if you wish, you can leave the history alone altogether, if it bores or angers or discomfits you. [I spoil nothing to say this Rising ended more less as you will have come to expect although, thanks to French involvement, with even more treachery and disappointment than was strictly usual.] But you must read this book at last or again, as the case may be for you.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Wherein the Suburban Sheepdog engages in wild speculation . . . *

One thing we simply don’t do here at the Suburban Sheepdog is engage in wild speculation. Well. . . . It's not completely prohibited, I suppose, but it is certainly discouraged. Yes . . .  discouraged. Frowned upon, one might say. Not the done thing. So maybe let's call this "Theater of the Mind" instead. 

For folks with even the slightest knowledge of how guys “in the boats” operate (and I claim only the slightest knowledge), the story has had the smell of a Qatari-fishmonger’s day-old wares right from the start. It goes like this:

Two modern Riverine Command Boats (carrying loads of sophisticated navigation equipment, communications gear, highly maintained engines, experienced sailors and – not for nothing – tow ropes), supposedly traveling within sight of the eastern shore of Arabian Peninsula while transiting down the western edge of the Persian Gulf got leagues** off course and both run aground/suffer simultaneous multiple engine failures/both run out of fuel (this bit of the tale changes with each telling), and thus wind up in notoriously unfriendly Iranian waters, where they are seized.***

I know, right . . . ?

But to understand a story, to test its smell, you have to know the context in which is told. So how about this for that . . ..

The US and Iran, perhaps as an adjunct to Let’s Make a Deal, perhaps as a prerequisite to it, perhaps as a result, agree that there will be a prisoner exchange. We will get back five folks, including a journalist, a student and a pastor. Iran gets back seven prisoners, most of whom were being held for illegally exporting military or nuclear program materiel, and we agree to take another Iranian 14 fugitives off of Interpol’s wanted list. From the US administration’s perspective, the exchange is cheap at twice the price, because our people come home.

But for Iran, not so much. The trouble for Iran is that, like any despotry, the most important propaganda isn’t the kind they broadcast to the rest of an unbelieving world. Instead, the propaganda that matters most is the kind that is disseminated to its own citizens. They must continually be reminded of – on the one hand – the threat posed by whomever is playing foil to the regime (for Iran, of course, that’s been US, in the role of “The Great Satan,” a performance running since at least the overthrow of Mossadegh and extended indefinitely) and – on the other hand – the power of the Supreme Leader (or El Jefe Maximo or The Grand Poobah or whatever he’s locally dubbed) to resist that existential outside threat. Only thus can the President for Life or the Revolutionary Counsel or the Mighty Morphin’ Magic Mullah justify all the torture, repression and bread lines, and keep his own people at least marginally at bay.

So, knowing they are about to release some US “spies” and “operatives,” and not quite satisfied with a better than 4-to-1 exchange rate, one can imagine Iran demanding that a callow U.S. administration put a little sweetener into the pot. Our benighted leadership is all too eager to ante up. But  . . . what’s left? We’re already giving back all the money we seized and lifting the sanctions we imposed, all on unverifiable promises that Iran will behave itself in years to come, you know, nuclear bomb-wise. We already have demonstrated that a few unauthorized missile launches here and there aren’t going to be enough to queer the deal. Naked before a fully-clothed Iran, what’s left for the pot in this one-sided strip poker game? What to do? What to do?
And then I imagine**** someone speaking up from the back row of some conference room  – maybe an eager-beaver back-wall staffer who’s prized for thinking outside the box: “Say . . .  How about some American sailors on their knees? Now hear me out. . . .  There’s – I dunno – a ‘navigation failure.’ They – whadaya call it? – ‘stray into Iranian waters’? And you Iranians . . .ya know . . . seize the boats. Nobody gets hurt. You  guys take some photos and steal some telephone SIM cards. Maybe you shoot a little video that you can broadcast over encouraging chyrons describing the ‘cowardice’and ‘submission of the United States.’ Time it just right to coordinate with the prisoner exchange. . .  Then you give the sailors back and we get to say we ‘recovered’ them, which is easy 'cause we gave em over in the first place.  . . ."

"Ohhh! Ohhh!" pipes up a staffer on the political team, eager to think outside a box of her own. "Get this  . . . this is good: POTUS doesn't say a word about the seizure during the State of the Union. Team R howls. Then they look foolish when we announce it like the next day. Sort of like Operation Neptune Spear and the Correspondents' Dinner. The President is going to look so  -- what's the word? -- Presidential."

"Three or four news cycles at the most" says the first staffer, glaring at the young woman who has stolen some of his thunder, vowing his revenge. "Everybody gets well. We emphasize the prisoner exchange; you focus on the 'incursion.' Whadaya say?"

But that’s all wild speculation. . . .

. . .  And we don’t do that here.

* . . . and uses a lot of ellipses.

** “League” is just a salty way of saying 3 nautical miles. Nautical mile is just a salty way of saying 1.15 miles. To get the picture, try this exercise. Go to Google Maps and search up “Farsi Island.” (Keep zooming in; you will see it eventually.) Now draw a line from Kuwait to Bahrain. There you go. Actual distances involved are about 42 miles between Farsi Island and the nearest point on the Saudi coast. Yes, the Iranians claim waters around Farsi Island as their own. Even so . . .

*** I have no cavil with the “seized” part from that point. These boats are not designed to engage in combat on the open seas with bigger craft, nor was the mission here to do so, nor would the Rules of Engagement have allowed such a fight.

**** And of course, I only can imagine, since I wasn’t in the room where it happened.