Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Happy Birthday Steve!

It's Steve Perry's birthday today. We met him a number of years back at a writing workshop at Portland State where he was skeptical about Silat. "Oh, I've got all the martial arts I need already." Good thing, too. If he'd had those extra few years of Sera he might have been able to pass more on to, hmm, certain people.

We can probably put it down to his colorful past and youthful indiscretions

Happy sixtieth and many more, Steve. We're happy you stayed. And we're glad to know you.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I Support the Draft!

According to the Pentagon the war in Iraq might take ten years. The Surge isn't stopping sectarian violence or the breakup of Iraq. The government, such as it is, is falling apart, and our glorious allies the Iraqi security forces can't fight on their own. At least they can't fight on their own as cohesive units. They do a bang-up job as members of various militias and gangs.

The President has outsourced his Constitutional responsibilities to General Petraeus. I've spent a long time looking at the Constitution and just can't find a description of the office and duties of "War Czar". But now that the good general is sounding less than optimistic about declaring victory he's being silenced.

We're rattling our saber at Iran and have declared that units in their military are terrorist organizations. The rhetoric coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue sounds suspiciously like it did before the invasion of Iraq.

The only problem with this wonderful adventure is that we're running out of troops. The National Guard and Reserves have been used like the only cheap hooker in town when the Fleet is in. Our servicemen and women have been in the field longer and with less downtime than the whole of World War II. The Army and Marines are having real trouble meeting recruiting targets and keeping officers. To fill the hole we've got over 125,000 "private contractors" doing the jobs that soldiers used to do.

[Just a note on these "contractors". The Geneva Convention is very specific about what constitutes armed forces. It is equally clear about mercenaries. It even describes guerrillas, militias and the civilian population. Blackwater and Dyncorp fit none of these categories. They are textbook-perfect examples of "unlawful combatants". They have no rights under the Laws of War. If they have guns, they are fair game. And I don't shed a single tear when one of them is killed, maimed or captured and disappears forever. If they were wearing the Uniform it would be different. As it is? Screw 'em. They deserve whatever happens.]

How can we continue the adventure? I can only see a few possibilities. We can rotate Guard and Reserves in faster. We can cut downtime between deployments or increase the length of rotations. These aren't going to work. Our Armed Forces are already seriously fatigued. Training and readiness are suffering. The latest compromise in Congress promised them fifteen months on and a year off which the DoD itself doesn't consider sufficient to maintain the quality of the military.

Or we could suddenly discover a whole bunch of new recruits.

That doesn't seem likely. The recruiters have stopped scraping the bottom of the barrel and have commenced to kicking the bottom out of the sucker to see what might be crawling around underneath. Active gang-bangers, drug users, an unprecedented fraction who score in the lowest cohort on aptitude tests and even severe autistics are already getting in. In the last few weeks the Pentagon has mentioned the possibility of a draft a couple times. Quietly. And they've always immediately denied it. But I can't see how else they are going to deliver enough meat to the grinder. Otherwise the insurgents, the Shiite militias, Iran and everyone else in the Administration's sights is going to say "Yeah? You and what Army?"

So I'm foursquare 100 percent in favor of a draft. It will have to be a special draft. It will have to be a draft which unites the country in a spirit of shared sacrifice instead of dividing it like the Vietnam years.

I propose the Carthage Draft.

There's some controversy about the ancient Phoenicians. Some people say they regularly practiced human sacrifice. Some say it was blood libel by their Roman enemies. In any case they had a custom. In times of grave danger they would publicly sacrifice children to their gods by burning them to death in a hollow brass statue. Here's the important part. These weren't orphans or the children of the poor. They weren't slaves. They were the favorite little boys and girls of the rich and noble. All of the families had to pony up in front of each other.

Here in 21st Century America those who rule do not suffer the same as those who serve. Hawkish Senators don't have children in the line of fire. The powerfully connected get to join the Air National Guard and go AWOL or get half a dozen deferments because they have "other priorities". It breeds resentment from the Lower Orders and removes the cost from those who reap the benefit. The only way they will stop making war is when it just isn't fun anymore.

So let them pay. Let them pay in a coin which can not be covered with money or political pressure. Let them pay with something that costs the same whether you are rich or poor. Let them show how much they support the war by paying with the lives of their own children.

Every Congressman, every Senator, everyone in the Executive Branch above a certain level and everyone in the Cheney Branch gets to contribute. Hell, let's go all out and include the wealthiest 1% of families and the board members of the Fortune 500. All of them contribute a child. By preference it should be a son or daughter. If there isn't one a grandchild, a niece or nephew, a younger sibling or a spouse will do. The chosen will be in for the duration. There will be no deferments, no exemptions, none of that. If they suddenly discover that they're gay then "unit cohesion" will just have to suffer for the good of the country. They go in as buck privates destined for frontline units with really dangerous specialties like Rifleman or Cavalry Scout. There won't be opportunities to get out of danger by going to special training, Officer Candidate School or one of the Academies. They're in the thick of it as long as it lasts. The ones who are disabled or killed get replaced by someone else in the family.

So the rich and powerful can have their wars. The President can surge all he wants, but Jenna or Barbara will be dodging bullets. The Democrats can rubber stamp everything - they do anyway. But they won't be able to "triangulate" on their wives and husbands when their only child comes back in a box. Halliburton really will have to trade blood for oil. But their own flesh and blood will be included. They can have all the war they want. But they'll have to endure whatever their families throw at them. They'll have to suffer the same sleepless nights and cry at the same funerals as the Little People. And they'll have to convince themselves and their loved ones that it was worth it every day for the rest of their lives.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Lineage and Fallen Houses

Over on Steve Perry's blog there's an article about the politicking in our branch of the Silat family tree and attempts to end it. The squabbling has gone on for a long time and will probably continue until all of the old generation has passed away. Maybe not. The biblical precedent is a little bleaker

“For I the LORD thy G-d am a jealous G-d, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation”

-Exodus 20:6

The strife has gotten to the point where my wife and I have a joke: "Indonesian Brain Rot strikes four out of five. Please give generously." Look at the American Silat population - I hesitate to call it a community - from the outside and it seems ludicrous. Long-time students tossed. Strangers venerated. Odd superstitions. Conflicts that would embarrass a herd of fourth graders let alone grown men and women. Teaching certification and fancy titles given for favors and withdrawn at real or imagined slights. Wannabe-Wahabites saying that only the right sort of Muslim can do Silat while they ignore its Chinese and Indian roots. Histories rewritten to make the tellers the heroes of their own imaginary dramas. Young people stopping fights among their elders instead of the other way around. In the words of the Great Sages of my people "Oy vey. What meshugas." Maybe it's something in the water. Maybe it's a curse from the Clue Fairy who has turned her back on us.

If you haven't read Mark Kurlansky do yourself a favor and pick up a couple of his books. I strongly recommend Salt: A World History, The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation, A Chosen Few: The Resurrection of European Jewry, Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea (with the Dalai Lama), and Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing From Around the World and Throughout History. Whenever he writes you'll find the Basque, the Jews, the Caribbean and food.

A few years back I read The Basque History of the World and was struck by the expression "the house would vanish".

When asked for the antique recipe for her family's gateau Basque, Jeanine Pereuil smiled bashfully and said, "You know, people keep offering me a lot of money for this recipe."

How much do they offer?

"I don't know. I'm not going to bargain. I will never give out the recipe. If I sold the recipe, the house would vanish. And this is the house of my father and his father. I am keeping their house. And I hope my daughter will do the same for me."

The Dutch-Indonesians who brought Silat to North America certainly weren't Basque. But there's a very similar feel to their situation. They mixed more with the local peoples for a longer time than almost any colonialists except maybe the French-Polynesians while remaining a distinct population. They were landowners, government officials, the professional classes and very close to minor nobility for generations. Then everything was taken from them. The Japanese put them in concentration camps. After World War II when they were just beginning to get things together Indonesia achieved independence. Their lands and property were confiscated. They were driven out of the new nation because they were Dutch. When the surviving refugees moved to the Netherlands they weren't really Dutch. They were "coffee beans", half-castes. Some moved to places where their old skills could be used. Some ended up in the United States where everyone was an immigrant and almost anyone could become American. The weren't outcast, but they were just another group of immigrants.

Their house had vanished.

What was left of what they had been? The communities were gone. The physical property had disappeared. Their children might speak some Dutch and Indonesian at home, but their grandchildren wouldn't. About the only thing remaining was knowledge, especially when it had been passed down in the family. How do you keep knowledge? If you hoard it and don't teach it to anyone it dies with you. If you give it away to everyone the last thing you have that makes you what you were is worthless. If you show it to someone it becomes his as much as yours. In many martial arts, famously the Chinese ones, the solution has been to destroy the Art. You only teach your inner students 80% of what you know and keep the rest, especially the parts that make it particularly good, for yourself. You encourage cult-like devotion to your style and discourage the next generation from interacting with other people who have different strengths. After seven go-rounds nobody knows more than a fifth of the original system, and that's gotten fragmented.

You couldn't call what happened in America a solution although there seems to have been a greater willingness to thoroughly train selected students. Let's say it's the way things worked out. There's been a lot of jealousy tied up with the transmission of the family martial arts and a desire to hang on and keep control while passing it on to the worthy. Any rational person could see that you can't do both, especially after you pass away. But we're dealing with fundamental threats to identity here. People are rarely rational about that.

That's where the obsession with "lineage" comes from. In the everyday sense of the word it's where you come from, your ancestry. In martial arts the meaning is a little different. Someone is designated to maintain the organization, settle disputes and generally be the guy in charge. In Silat in this country it has mutated into a full out hemiptera-conjugating chiroptera-feces barking madness. The Lineage becomes something with an independent existence. It can be bestowed in a moment and removed on a whim. If you have it you are the Fair-Haired Boy, the Annointed of Heaven, possessed of some invisible supernatural legacy. If you don't have it or had it taken away you are suddenly diminished.

With those sorts of stakes riding on something completely arbitrary strange things happen. He who has The Lineage guards it jealously. It comes with status and the assumption that he is the best around. Those who don't have it but think of themselves as contenders politic for it madly. If you or your teacher has it you must be "real". Anyone who doesn't is suspect. Someone who had the magical prize but had it taken away must not have had the martial art to begin with. Obviously, neither do his students.

On the face of it it's insane. Knowledge once given can not be taken away. Skill is skill whether the practitioner is a saint or a 24 karat brass-plated jerk. An administrative title just doesn't signify.

If you look at it another way it makes emotional (although not rational) sense. The Lineage is more like a patent of nobility or chieftanship. It can be given and taken back. It is a mark of favor, the sign of who is entitled to the family lands. Of course only one person can have it. It's a unique legacy that represents the continuation of one's family and ideals in a single body.

The problem is that understanding is not like a farm. It is not diminished or divided if more than one person has it. Quite the contrary. If there are more good people who understand something there is less chance that the knowledge will be lost. Idolizing The Lineage will simply cause dissension and backbiting as people scramble to be The One and resent it if they aren't. Whole groups of students will have a reason to look down on or resent others depending on who is associated with the extra special teacher. The system as a community is designed to tear itself apart from the top down.

This is closely related to the habit some teachers have of withdrawing certification and recognition. If the Art is a thing it can be lent, sold, given away and taken back at one's pleasure. You can give someone a title or a certificate. It's yours to do. If he falls out it can be taken away in the way that the king can ennoble or debase someone. The honors are his and are no more or less than a mark of his favor.

Taken on its own terms the whole thing makes sense. Unfortunately, there is an expectation that the piece of paper and the title are supposed to say something about the quality of the person who has them. From that point of view it makes no sense at all. If someone really was a qualified teacher or a Master of the craft that is supposed to have some meaning outside of the personal relationship between him and his teacher. One could say "He and I no longer speak to each other," or "I recognize that he has these skills, but I can no longer trust his character," or even "He was up to par then. I don't know about now."

To say "He never was" or "He was but I take it back" is a different thing. None of the alternatives makes the teacher look good. One possibility is that the teacher is lying. Who would want to trust a liar? Another is that he has no interest in quality control. The honors are worthless. He could be in denial. He could have very poor judgment. Or he's subject to flattery and pettiness which makes the recipient suspect; the implication is that a teacher is one who can curry favor, not someone who can teach.

I'm afraid Steve Perry is right. A number of the last generation will have to pass away before things get better. We can only hope that when that happens people will act more sensibly. In the meanwhile let's try to treat each other kindly. Judge people on what they are and what they do more than who happens to be popular with the higher ups this week. Don't take the ornate titles seriously. Don't even ask about them. Especially, forget about who has The Lineage. Just ask "Can he fight?", "Can he teach?", "Does he have good skills?", "Where did he learn it?" and "Is he a decent person?" Those are what's important. The rest is rubbish.