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The Pity of War, by Christopher Hitchens (The Atlantic) October 22, 2009

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Christopher Hitchens doesn’t have an official website, and there are no Hitchens aggregates out there, so I am going to attempt to fill this void. This is his most recent peice from The Atlantic, and I will continue to post his newest articles as I run across them.

The Pity of War



MANY YEARS AGO, I went to the Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament in London to keep an appointment with the almost picturesquely reactionary Conservative politician Alan Clark. He was the son of Kenneth (later Lord) Clark—the art historian and author of the Civilisation series—and the heir to Saltwood Castle, in Kent. He was also the author of a 1961 book, The Donkeys, which was a history of the British General Staff in the First World War. The title came from a famous comment that had supposedly been made at that epoch by a German military strategist. Told by the highly impressed Quartermaster General Ludendorff that “these British soldiers fight like lions,” General Max Hoffmann had responded: “Yes, but lions led by donkeys.”

Probably no historical image would be harder to dislodge from the collective memory than that of the teak-headed, red-faced, white-moustached general, his tactics derived from long-ago cavalry maneuvers, sitting in a château headquarters well behind the lines as he orders waves of infantry across minefields and through barbed wire, forcing them like the Light Brigade itself “into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell,” and into the waiting German machine guns. Clark’s history of this cataclysmic episode was in some ways the least of it: the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon, together with the memoirs of Robert Graves, now constitute a sort of separate department of English literature, centered around not just “the pity of war,” but also its futility. However, The Donkeys attained a relevance well beyond its shelf life because it was adapted by Joan Littlewood and mutated into the mighty stage and then screen triumph of Oh! What a Lovely War. This work made the teak-headed, red-faced, white-moustached version into something practically unchallengeable for the first generation that had no memory of the conflict itself.

As I marched across Parliament Square, semiconsciously falling into step with the military pace of the right-wing half of this right-left collaboration, Clark said to me: “I suppose you have heard people say that I am a bit of a fascist?” We had a whole lunch ahead of us and I didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot, but something told me he would despise me if I pretended otherwise, so I agreed that this was indeed a thumbnail summary in common use. “That’s all balls,” he replied with complete equanimity. “I’m really much more of a Nazi.” This was what Bertie Wooster would have called “a bit of a facer”; I was groping for an apt response when Clark pressed on. “Your fascist is a little middle-class creep who worries about his dividends and rents. The true National Socialist feels that the ruling class has a debt and a tie to the working class. We sent the British workers off to die en masse in the trenches along the Somme, and then we rewarded them with a slump and mass unemployment, and then that led to another war that gutted them again.” For Clark, the lesson of this bloodletting was that a truly national, racial, and patriotic class collaboration was the main thing.

Peter Hart is one of the chief historians at what the British still call the Imperial War Museum, in London, and he is a member of that tremendously tenacious group of scholars—the late (somehow magically named) John Terraine being the veteran of the group—who cannot rest until honor and credit have been restored to those who made up the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders. Hart writes like this: “The remorseless rhythms of global war had already wrapped themselves around the British Empire” (a sentence that would work just as well, if not indeed better, if it were the British Empire wrapping itself around the global rhythms), and he alludes scornfully to those who moan on about “the pity of it all,” although that phrasing doesn’t occur in Wilfred Owen, who wrote firsthand of “war, and the pity of war,” and said, “The poetry is in the pity.” Hart has no big-picture sense of the place of the Great War in the narrative of the 20th century—he is as committed to the mud of Flanders and Picardy as his forebears were. Nonetheless, as one turns his pages, one is compelled to be impressed by the way he builds his relentless and one-dimensional case. The battles along the Somme were not one repetitive fiasco after another, but rather represented a very steep and painful learning curve, up which the British army agonizingly inched, to eventually acquire the skills and sinews that wore down Prussian militarism.

This doesn’t alter the fact, which Hart scarcely bothers to conceal, that there was something doomed about the first assault. A purely political calculation was involved. The French army had been so terribly mauled and demoralized at Verdun that the British feared it might actually disintegrate unless they shored up its flanks. According to General Sir Douglas Haig himself, quoting General Joffre at what had obviously been a panic meeting:

He [Joffre] therefore was of the opinion that 1 July was the latest date for the combined offensiveThe moment I mentioned 15 August Joffre at once got very excited and shouted that “The French Army would cease to exist, if we did nothing till then”! The rest of us looked on at this outburst of excitement, and then I pointed out that, in spite of the 15th August being the most favorable date for the British Army to take action, yet, in view of what he had said regarding the unfortunate condition of the French Army, I was prepared to commence operations on the 1st July or thereabouts.

The first day of July 1916 it finally was, and I dare say people still remember that on just that first day of the attack, the British suffered about 57,000 casualties, more than one-third of them fatal. (A pair of lovely old villages in the Cotswold Hills in Gloucestershire is quaintly named Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter. Upper Slaughter is well known locally because it is one of the tiny number of villages in the country that did not lose any men in the Great War.) Hart has no time for details such as the foregoing, but almost 200 pages after that ominous Haig-Joffre citation, he makes the same point about the continued bloodletting in his own brisk and businesslike way:

Even if Haig had fully realized the depth and breadth of the losses suffered by his assaulting divisions on 1 July he could not have aborted the offensive without seriously jeopardizing the Entente Cordiale with France and RussiaThey were unlikely to look on with any great sympathy if Britain tried to evade her share of the “butcher’s bill.”

So the Hart line can be followed and understood once one accepts that British mass casualties were a political question: a price worth paying for the continued good opinion of the Russian czar and of the future leadership of Vichy. But then it does happen to be true that soldiers are the subordinates of politicians and that war is the continuation and extension of politics by other means, just as it happens to be true that a field headquarters more or less has to be in the rear of the action, because no general can command from a shifting front line.

From Hart’s book I was able to learn and grasp (and even picture) the historic importance of the “creeping,” or perhaps better say “staggered,” barrage. The descriptions one has so often seen, of entire ranks and files of British infantry lying dead almost symmetrically, like so much freshly scythed wheat, are all true. But these men were being expended while the British artillery struggled to evolve a system of covering bombardment that “walked” in front of them, smashing trench after trench and clearing them a path. Painstakingly leading us through a series of terrible engagements, Hart succeeds in showing how the gunners got steadily better (as did the guns). He also succeeds in giving one an enhanced respect for the German soldiers who held positions under this unbelievable rain of fire and were still—almost always—ready to fight. Sometimes they were too stunned and deafened and dazed to do anything but surrender, or rather, try to do so. An unpleasantly recurrent theme in the diaries and letters of British soldiers—Niall Ferguson has also been able to be honest about this often-avoided question—is the casual or even gloating way in which the Tommys boasted of killing German prisoners. In many instances they were more or less under orders to do so, from men such as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Maxwell of the Middlesex Regiment:

And I must say that they fought most stubbornly and bravely. Probably not more than 300–500 put their hands upI have no shame in saying so—as every German should in my opinion be exterminated—I don’t know that we took one. I have not seen a man or officer yet who did anyway.

It used to be said of the American Civil War that it was the last of the old wars and the first of the new, but on the Western Front in the early days of the war there were still some traces of a more gallant and less mechanized age. Here is the admittedly rather ridiculous Chaplain Leonard Jeeves of the 18th Division, describing one episode of over-the-top quixotry on that first awful day:

A few hundred yards away from where we were fast becoming busy, my good and brave friend, Captain Nevill, led his men into the fight with footballs. And thus he died. With the Englishman’s way of fighting, he went on his way. The War was a game which was to be played to the end in a clean and straight manner.

This is perhaps too much like a stiff-upper-lip caricature to have much effect on the reader’s emotions, but if you have tears to shed, you will prepare to do so when you read of the “Pals” battalions that were formed out of men from single localities and neighborhoods. This often gave a great impetus to recruitment, with entire streets of men joining up together. But the devastating effect of mass casualties on such communities was correspondingly intense. (John Harris’s neglected masterpiece of a novel, Covenant With Death, is the success that it is because it follows a group of Sheffield workers from their flag-waving sign-up to the hecatomb on the Somme.)

Hart doesn’t mention it, but the massacre of the Ulster Protestants of Belfast, which also took place on July 1, was a major contributing cause to the sectarian warfare that has only just ended in that city. The influence of the Vimy Ridge fighting on the formation of Canadian nationalism, of Gallipoli and the Somme on the emergence of an Australian identity, together with the role played by Indian regiments in fueling demands for self-government, would themselves make a book on empire. Most people have never heard of Delville Wood, but if you mention it in South Africa you will find that it is still a place of fame: only 780 out of the 3,153 men in the South African Regiment were present to answer the roll call by the time the wood itself had been obliterated and they had been withdrawn from it. This horror came, regrettably enough for them, in the early days of the learning curve, and many of these casualties were the result of British shells bursting in their midst.

The attitude and personality of General Sir Douglas Haig—personification of the bovine British militarist—is one of those subjective factors that no amount of historical revisionism can erase. Reacting to an extremely painful and costly reverse suffered by an Australian division whose soldiers had been flung into an ill-advised attack through no fault of its own, Haig snootily informed the Aussies that they were not fighting Turks anymore, and wrote in his diary:

Some of their divisional generals are so ignorant and (like so many Colonials) so conceited, that they cannot be trusted to work out unaided the plans of attack.

He could also, when it suited him, invert the Clausewitzian cliché and intervene directly in British politics. By the end of July 1916, Winston Churchill had become so concerned about the appalling butcher’s bill and the lack of compensating terrain gained from the Germans that he wrote a confidential memo for the eyes of the War Cabinet. Haig sent a reply, in which he spoke of the Somme as a demonstration to the world of “the fighting power of the British race” and stressed the importance of the campaign in relieving pressure on the Russians (who were little more than a year away from total capitulation). He also told King George V that Churchill’s “head is gone from taking drugs.” Hart describes that latter statement as “delightfully waspish.”

Every now and then there is a real “find” among the journals kept and books written by soldiers: I was especially engrossed by the pungency of one Lieutenant Lawrence Gameson, a medical officer with the Royal Field Artillery. His unbearably vivid description of health conditions among his men makes it easier to understand why the casualty figures went so high and stayed so high: this was a very dirty war, where even a slight wound or infection was in many cases a death sentence. Gameson used understatement to great effect and also knew when it was being employed for euphemism: informed by his superiors that “the wet season [was] approaching,” when many of his trenches were already “waist deep in liquid mud,” he described their choice of the word wet as “scarcely short of criminal meiosis.”

But language is not the dimension in which Hart excels. To some of us, mention of “the river Somme” is the opening of Act III, Scene v of Henry V, a coincidence that he never mentions. “We would not seek a battle as we are,” King Henry soon tells the French herald Montjoy, adding imperishably, “nor as we are, we say, we will not shun it.” That could sum up the attitude of many a stoic British lion as he shouldered the burden the Donkeys had laid upon him: this play is the one above all others that gives voices to the soldiery. (Alas, as Shakespeare didn’t flinch from showing in Act IV, Scenes vi–vii, before that day at Agincourt was done, the British had massacred all their French prisoners, too.) Henry’s rhetoric places a constant emphasis on the way that the struggle dissolved the barrier between king and subject, creating a “band of brothers.” That was fanciful enough, to be sure, but the carnage of 1914–18, which led to the greatest fall of monarchies in history, also widened and deepened the class chasms and led to the spewing-up of Nazism from the wreckage of defeated Germany. “The darkest hour”—Hart’s subtitle—is naively supposed to be the one just before dawn. The mortal combat in Flanders fields, by contrast, was the prelude to a continental darkness far more Stygian than anything that could even have been imagined before it.

Interesting post w/ many links over @ the ‘Why Evolution Is True’ blog October 18, 2009

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(This is a post from Jerry coyne’s blog Why Evolution is True. and I thought this post had some great information in it and wanted to share the goodness! Thanks to the writer of this post Matthew Cobb and the blog master of WEIT Jerry Coyne)

And now for something completely different…October 14, 2009 – 12:47 pm

by Matthew Cobb

Well, not completely different. As some of you may know, every week during the academic year, I send out an electronic newsletter to Zoology students at Manchester University, past and present, and to another hundred or so interested people. I just sent out the latest issue of the Z-letter, and one of my readers – Jerry Coyne – replied from Guatemala, or wherever: “Post this WHOLE THING on my website! Including the stuck skunk!” So here you are… If any of you want to subscribe to the Z-letter, send a mail to: cobb at manchester dot ac dot uk

Hello everyone

Here’s the latest Z-letter, with everything from a stuck skunk video to ideas about how morality evolved, including rapping about natural selection… Don’t forget to send in your links! 288 subscribers now!




James Moore, co-author of the recent book “Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins”, will be giving a talk about his fascinating discoveries underlying Darwin’s motivations. Everyone is welcome – the talk will be in Roscoe B lecture Theatre, on Brunswick Street, at 5:30pm on Tuesday 20 October. Anyone with any interest in Darwin should go to what will be an excellent talk.



When I first heard about this Darwin-themed event at the Manchester Museum, I was very doubtful – “evolution presented in the style of Eminem”. But Henry McGhie of the Museum, who’s been heavily involved with it, assures me that it really is fantastic. Baba Brinkman explores the history of Darwin’s theory combining hilarious remixes of popular rap songs with clever lyrical storytelling that covers Natural Selection, Sexual Selection, Evolutionary Psychology, and much more. Friday 23 October at 6pm in the Museum.

Baba Brinkman’s page:




The new documentary about the fishing industry which was mentioned in the last Z-letter will be shown on More4 at 10:00pm on Tuesday October 20th.

The End of the Line trailer:




I had to address this issue in my second year lecture this morning. I was so amazed by some of the stuff I uncovered while researching the talk that I had to blog about it as Jerry Coyne’s guest blogger. See whether you’re equally convinced.

WhyEvolutionIsTrue.com blog:




I had to check the date on this one, but no, it’s not date-stamped 1 April. US researchers at Berkeley are apparently able to radio control giant beetles (up to 20cm long) using electrodes implanted when the beetle was a grub. They can be “flown” round a room using a laptop. Although undoubtedly macabre, it isn’t quite so amazing as it sounds, as the electrodes are implanted into the muscles, not the brain. Stimulating the wing muscles on one side rather than the other would make the animal turn. Controlling the neuronal activity leading to that movement would be a lot more difficult, indeed impossible given our current knowledge. [EDIT – How wrong I was! Now I have been able to read the original article – see below, they did indeed plant electrodes into the beetle’s brain, which controlled flight initiation (wing flapping) and elevation (presumably a function of wing vibration speed). Amazing!] However, there are alarming implications of this work, which is being funded by the US military… Sheffield’s Professor Neil Starkey is particularly concerned by this. The work is allegedly reported in Frontiers in INTEGRATIVE Neuroscience (open access, includes movies!)  but I can’t find the original article…

BBC page:




From the EZNews produced by John Altrincham (Leeds): Cameras fitted to albatrosses show that they follow killer whales, perhaps to take advantage of fish flushed to the surface. They also appear to dive in the company of other albatrosses and dive surprisingly infrequently.

BBC page:


Original Paper in PLoS ONE (open access):




Oklahoma skunk gets its head stuck in a jar of peanut butter. Will it spray its rescuers?




This is an issue that Darwin (again) was fascinated by, and which is growing in importance. There’s an excellent site by Douglas Allchin of the University of Minnesota which effectively functions as a textbook on the question. Essential reading.

Evolution of Morality site:


Review by me of three books on the question:




The Big Moment of many people’s week will have been the new BBC natural history series, Life, narrated (but not filmed) by David Attenborough. I found the music incredibly irritating, overblown and unnecessary, but the images are absolutely stunning. (The flying fish were my favourite.) If you’re in the UK, you can still watch it again on line at:




Much of the footage in the first episode of Life was devoted to predation, with scenes of prey animals being chased by hungry predators. What are the physiological effects of such stress on prey animals? An article in a recent issue of Journal of Animal Ecology looks at snowshoe hares.

Magazine article (Sub needed to get past abstract):


Research article (Sub needed to get past abstract):




More from John Altrincham: Spiders adjust thread tension to improve their ability to detect prey on the web.

BBC picture:


Proceedings of the Royal Society article (Sub needed to get beyond abstract):




Promised about a month ago by Geoff North, editor of Current Biology and assiduous Z-letter reader, this news of a salticid spider from Central America that is vegetarian. Or nearly. Its primary food are small tender shots of acacia leaves, which are guarded by ants as part of an ant-plant mutualism. The spider can jump over the ants and get the buds. Quite amazing.

WhyEvolutionIsTrue.com blog:


BBC page, including video:


Current Biology News & Views article:


Current Biology research article:




A huge set of dino prints, covering several hectares, has been found in Eastern France. Some of the sauropod traces are over *two metres* wide. That doesn’t mean that the dino’s feet were that wide, of course. The way that prints are preserved in gloopy mud often means that they are much broader than the animal’s feet.

BBC page:




This sent in by PhD student Neil Buttery, who spotted it on PopBitch, which is obviously what he surfs when he’s not playing Scrabble on Facebook…


(Jerry in Guatemala)The Mayan city of Tikal, Peten, Guatemala. Atop Temple 2, with Temple 1 in background.

(Jerry in Guatemala) The Mayan city of Tikal, Peten, Guatemala. Atop Temple 2, with Temple 1 in background.

Homer Evolution October 16, 2009

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Ardipithecus ramidus October 4, 2009

Posted by rationalskeptic in Fossils.
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In its 2 October 2009 issue, Science presents 11 papers, authored by a diverse international team, describing an early hominid species, Ardipithecus ramidus, and its environment. These 4.4 million year old hominid fossils sit within a critical early part of human evolution, and cast new and sometimes surprising light on the evolution of human limbs and locomotion, the habitats occupied by early hominids, and the nature of our last common ancestor with chimps. (from sciencemag.org AAAS)

This is an area of study that I love to talk about and post about, but I am going to leave this post up to the experts to explain:  Here is a portion of Carl Zimmer’s post over at his blog The Loom.

Nice Guys With Little Teeth

Those of you reading this post that have a Y chromosome have canine teeth that are about the same size as those of my XX readers. The same rule applies to the teeth of some other primate species. But in still other species, the males have much bigger canines than the females. The difference corresponds fairly well to the kind of social lives these primates have. Big canines are a sign of intense competition between males. Canine teeth in some primate species get honed into sharp daggers that males can use as weapons in battles for territory and for the opportunity to mate with females.

Men have stubby canines, which many scientists take as a sign that the competition between males became less intense in our hominid lineage. That was likely due to a shift in family life. Male chimpanzees compete with each other to mate with females, but they don’t help with the kids when they’re born. Humans form long-term bonds, with fathers helping mothers by, for example, getting more food for the kids to eat. There’s still male-male competition in our lineage, but it’s a lot less intense than in other species.

White and his colleagues  found so many teeth of different Ardipithecus individuals that they could compare male and female canines with some confidence. The male teeth turn out to be surprisingly blunted. This result suggests that hominids shifted away from a typical ape social structure early in our ancestry. If this was a result of males forming long-term bonds with females and helping raise young, this shift was able to occur while hominids were still living a very ape-like life. Ardipithecus existed about 2 million years before the oldest evidence of stone tools, suggesting that technology was not the trigger for the evolution of nice hominid guys.

Walking, Of A Sort; And Climbing, Of A Sort

C. Owen Lovejoy of Kent State University spearheaded the studies on how Ardipithecus moved. He and his colleagues argue that its pelvis could support its upper body during bipedal walking. It wasn’t a fabulous walker, and was probably a terrible runner. Nevertheless, it had some of the same anchors for muscles that we have on our pelvis, and which chimpanzees and other apes lack. Its pelvis was, in other words, a mosaic. Lucy, we now can see, represents a later step in the journey towards out own walking-adapted anatomy.ardipithecus side view440

Ardipithecus’s feet were mosaics too. The four little toes were adapted for walking on the ground. Yet the big toe was still opposable, much like our thumbs. This sort of big toe helped Ardipithecus move through the trees much more adeptly than Lucy.

But Ardipithecus could not climb through trees as well as, say, chimpanzees. Chimpanzees have lots of adaptations in their arms and shoulders to let them hang from branches and climb vertically up trees with incredible speed. Ardipithecus had hands were not stiffened enough to let them move like chimpanzees. Ardipithecus probably moved carefully through the trees, using its hands and feet all at once to grip branches.

Just a Reminder: We Didn’t Evolve From Chimpanzees

Chimpanzees may be our closest living relatives, but that doesn’t mean that our common ancestor with them looked precisely like a chimp. In fact, a lot of what makes a chimpanzee a chimpanzee evolved after our two lineages split roughly 7 million years ago. Ardipithecus offers strong evidence for the newness of chimps.

Only after our ancestors branched off from chimpanzees, Lovejoy and his colleagues argue, did chimpanzee arms evolve the right shape for swinging through trees. Chimpanzee arms are also adapted for knuckle-walking, while Ardipithecus didn’t have the right anatomy to lean comfortably on their hands. Chimpanzees also have peculiar adaptations in their feet that make them particularly adept in trees. For example, they’re missing a bone found in monkeys and humans, which helps to stiffen our feet. The lack of this bone makes chimpanzee feet even more flexible in trees, but it also makes them worse at walking on the ground. Ardipithecus had that same foot bone we have. This pattern suggests that chimpanzees lost the bone after their split with our ancestors, becoming even better at tree-climbing.

Chimpanzees do still tell us certain things about our ancestry. Our ancestors had chimp-sized brains. They were hairy like chimps and other apes. And like chimps, they didn’t wear jewelry or play the trumpet.

But then again, humans turn out to be a good stand-in for the ancestors of chimpanzees in some ways–now that Ardipithecus has clambered finally into view.

Check out all the links in this post to read through the commentary and the actual research itself.