Saturday, December 31, 2016

Remembering Colonel Martinnen

On the last day of this sorry year, by way of a minute thumb on the scale to set the true weight right again, I will mention one of my commanders from my military days, Colonel Alpo Kullervo Martinnen. The world always has its share of brave and courageous people; they are rarely noted but, I trust, they’re really in the majority. Yesterday, in a note from my old friend Phil Cavanaugh, I was reminded again that Colonel Martinnen had been one of them.

I knew Col. Martinnen in the 8th Infantry Division. At the time he was the head of G5, the divisional department responsible for (then) for Civil Affairs and Military Government. Not surprisingly, all members of that group, at that time, were foreigners: Col Martinnen was a Finn; I was the ranking enlisted man with Hungarian, German, and French language skills; Horst Stark and Gary Wiese were both Germans. In case of a war breaking out, our G5 would have managed relations with the surrounding population—of which the chief task would have been keeping the roads open for military operations.

Martinnen (1908-1975) had risen to the rank of Lt Col in the Russo-Finnish War (1942-1944) as commander of the 61st Infantry Regiment. After the war he was active in the massive Weapons Cache Case in Finland during which military people hid weaponry and supplies for up to 35,000 soldiers in case of yet another Soviet invasion of the country. The Weapons Cache came to be discovered. Martinnen and many of his followers then fled Finland. Most emigrated to the United States and there enlisted in the U.S. Army around 1947. By the time I knew him, Martinnen was once again a Lieutenant Colonel, but this time in the U.S. Army. The Army immediately commissioned him a Major on enlisting—and then had him undergo U.S. basic training with mostly 18-year old privates. After serving as a trainer in winter warfare, he eventually was sent to Germany as a staff officer. And after that stint, he went on to command the 13th Battle Group, the successor to the 13th Infantry Regiment, which had been my own arma mater. Later yet he served in Korea and, just before he passed at age 67, he was serving in an assignment in Iran.

Beneath the layers of public life where power tends to corrupt, the stalwarts and the brave go on doing their thing with energy and courage—if sometimes bending the rules. One time, I recall, I had to type a document classified as Confidential. I took the document to him and said that I couldn’t do it: it was classified—and I had not received my clearance yet. “I clear you,” he said briskly. And I went off to type. (The document was about clearing roads of obstructions. Overclassification was already well-entrenched back then in the 1950s).

I’ve mentioned Col Martinnen once before, in 2011, in connection with the Finnish language here on this blog. Ethnically Alpo Kullervo was a Swede, you see, like many others of the upper layers of Finnish life, but determined nevertheless to master his “mother” tongue. A worthy man. I discovered yesterday that one of his sons, also a U.S. soldier, died young in Grafenwöhr, Germany, during an artillery accident at that firing range—a desolate place but one that I’ve always loved. 

Image courtesy of Wikipedia (link).

Friday, December 30, 2016

Slouching Toward 2017

One way to assess the year just past is to see how it looked when its sun was still under the horizon. The last posts of 2015—one of which was “Slouching Toward 2016”—suggested that ‘16 might turn out to be a mess as seen from late December ‘15. Among the events noted in ‘15 was the “victory” of Ramadi in Iraq. Now Ramadi is 79 miles west of Baghdad; the infamous Fallujah is halfway in between. Fallujah was then still held by ISIS (and as of December 11 of this year, bombings were still reported as ISIS remnants were being swept up.) Ramadi was “taken,” but what did the Iraqi army capture? Rubble. That was then, a year ago. 2016 turned out to be a year of such victories in Syria and elsewhere. Weeks of bombing; rubble turned into smaller rubble; and a stream of refugees coming out at last as if, when you squeeze rubble hard enough, a bit of darkly-colored life flows out like near-congealed blood. Today, as I gaze at 2017 ahead, the battle of Ramadi has moved on to Mosul. That battle has been going on for a long time but still isn’t over. It takes time to make once populous cities entirely unlivable. 2017 will doubtlessly unveil the “victory” of Mosul too. But that word will be quite meaningless.

My 2015 farewell posts failed to note that 2016 would be an election year. Had that occurred to me, I’d have avoided the word “slouching” and written about about “digging a deep hole.” Election years are like that in this seemingly endless cultural sunset. Well, 2017 is not an election year. So we approach it with faint hope. Or is the future preparing even more amazingly rude surprises? Just wondering.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Lingua Somnia

One sometimes wakes up from what feels like a dream, but the only residue is a single word. That happened to me last night; and the harvest of my dream was the word Nicaragua. Nicaragua is the largest country in that slender isthmus that connects North to South America or vice versa. Honduras is to Nicaragua’s north, Costa Rica to its south, about 6 million people. But none of that was in my mind.  What my dream presented was a linguistic challenge. I lay there in the dim dark, nose barely reaching the cold air, wondering if the first part of that word, Nicar, had any linkage to “black” in Spanish—because agua, of course, meant “water.” This kept me awake just long enough to make a firm decision to look into the matter when light finally came.

It turns out that the etymology of a word like Nicaragua is a swamp not even Donald Trump will ever drain. The accepted  version is that conquistador Gil González Dávila, its western discoverer, named the country for a local chieftain named Nacaro. But later scholars, having studied the original language of the region, called Nahuatl, have made correctives: that R in Nicaragua is suspect—but the “agua” is very defensible. But let us start with the name of the language itself. Nahuatl is formed of two words: NAHUAC and ATL. The first means “near,” the last means “water.” Note here, however, that atl is clearly not related to agua; agua, however, is a natural translation of atl. The name Nicaragua, scholars say, originates from three native words: NIC meaning “here,” ATL meaning “water,” and NAHUAC meaning “near.” In simple terms, Nicaragua means Here-Near-the-Water—just as the name of its language means Near-Water. These folk were proud either of their nearness to two oceans or, more likely, having their population centered around two big lakes on the south-western extent of the country: Lago Xolotlán and Lago Nicaragua (today). That chieftain named Nacaro perhaps played no role at all. But the Spanish clearly got the idea that agua had better be part of every major name around here. The capital is thus called Managua; it is the largest city in Central America. The Man part of that name comes from the name of a tribe, the Mánkeme, who lived in the area of Managua; the rest of it I need not repeat again.

Even a brief investigation into language reveals a universe beneath. To those who, like me, are absolutely fascinated by the hidden, near-forgotten, and overlaid parts of history, I recommend a closer look at the Nahuatl language, presented here by Wikipedia. It turns out to be part of the Proto-Uto Aztecan language group, the fifth level down a sizeable pyramid—all of which was leveled down, you might say, by the Spanish invasion of Latin America (Aztekistan?). The image of the Nahua woman I show above, the curl showing that she is speaking, comes from the same source. The image dates from the sixteenth century Florentine Codex produced by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún. Clearly the Nahuans were also originating later North American techniques of comic book speech. What a vast world we live in…

Monday, December 26, 2016

Boxing in the Fog

Those who’ve wondered what it might be like to be in the sky inside wondrous clouds massively crowding a blue sky would have their answer this morning down on the ground on the shores of Wolverine Lake in the Village of Wolverine Lake, MI. The clouds are down to inspect the lowest reaches. The fog hides all details. Houses, trees, cars, and the doomed remains of snow (the temperature is trying to pass 50 ° F) are only barely sketched in. All else is a white mist. So much, for starters, about the fog.

As for boxing, today is Boxing Day in England, the second day of Christmas elsewhere in Europe. It is also a holiday for all Federal Employees—but only because the 25th fell on a Sunday this year. More is available on Boxing Day in an early post on this blog, titled “The Day After ” (link) written some seven years ago. In that post the links between Christmas and the ancient Saturnalia are also traced. So it is very foggy on this Boxing Day of 2016. If you had the vague impression (as Brigitte and I did until I wrote that post) that Boxing Day is celebrated by boxing matches, you will be corrected. But that interpretation lingers. And checking the news while glancing out the window this morning, I imagined that our politicians, serving or just elected to serve, are well described by the view at Wolverine. They’re boxing in the fog—and no punch ever lands in this thick mist.

This blog began with a post on cyclic history (link). There I suggest that theories of cyclic history are much more likely to be true than belief in a Progressive March toward Perfection. Based on my teachers of history, we’re now part of a great decline in culture. It has happened before, is happening now, and will again a thousand or so years from now, give or take. Cyclic history is not an exact science. The past, however, keeps recurring.

Brigitte brought an example of that to my mind this morning. A story in the Times Digest tells of ISIS fighters smuggling weapons tied to the bellies of sheep. Okay. That’s in 2016 (still). The story reminded Brigitte of a Greek saga that, she thought, clearly mirrored it. I had a very vague memory too—and went to look it up. It turned out that Brigitte’s memories still work with relatively fine precision. When Odysseus falls into the hands of Polyphemus, the Cyclops, around about the 1200 BCs, he and his men manage to escape the Cyclops’ clutches by hanging on to the bellies of Polyphemus’ sheep that he, the Cyclops, lets out of his cave to graze.

Not an exact parallel, to be sure. Are we to associate ISIS with Odysseus? And the Cyclops with one Donald the Trump. Not very close. But the time distance between 2016 and 1200 BC is some 3,216 years. Thus it is likely that in the year 5232 AD some such tale may have some currency. But a true Cyclops has only one eye. That’s strong evidence that Trump might not qualify. In this fog, it’s hard to see the truth.