Absolute Destruction: A Problematic and Contradictory Book

absolute-destructionAbsolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany by Isabel Hull is a problematic and contradictory book. It is a good example of what happens when a historian begins with a thesis and then shoehorns data to fit that thesis. Hull’s core argument is that the Imperial German military (between the years 1904 and 1918) practiced institutional extremism, which led to the unchecked extermination of civilian populations in Africa and Europe. The unlimited application of violence defined that extremism. This made the German military unique among the militaries of other European powers. She set out to show, “how and why the institution designed to wield controlled violence exceeded the reasonable, effective, or goal-oriented limits of its use.”

According to Hull, there were three reasons the use of violence appeared unchecked: the German military’s separation from civilian institutions, the use of violence through “quasi-automatic mechanisms,” and an institutional gravitation toward total solutions―“the establishment of perfect order and complete obedience by the enemy population” in a permanent form.

To prove her thesis, Hull examined the behavior of the German military in Southwest Africa (present day Namibia), German military culture, and the behavior of the German military during the First World War. She drew from a large number of German sources and personal letters, as well as the philosophy of Hannah Arendt.

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Colonial Intimacies: A Revealing Look at American Indian Marriage in New England

80140100390110lHow did Puritan missionaries affect Native American marriage practices in colonial New England? How did Native Americans react to these changes? These are the questions Ann Marie Plane seeks to answer in Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England. From the diverse marriage practices of pre-1620, to Anglicized marriage of the late 1600s, to the partial reconstruction of “traditional” Indian marriage in the 1740s, American Indian practices were profoundly altered by Puritan evangelization and colonialism.

For American Indians living in New England, many aspects of their marriage practices changed, including polygamy and the distinction between elite and common marriages, divorce, the role of formal legal bodies, inheritance, notions of household, and even expected gender roles. By the time American Indians began to assert their independence by appealing to past notions of “traditional” marriage in a now English-dominated colony, it was difficult for them to determine what that looked like.

Ann Marie Plane cautiously explains there were no uniform practices among American Indian tribes, and that marriage practices were always in flux. She was able to find some generalities in primary sources, which were mainly generated by early explorers and missionaries. Clan affiliation and kinship were more important to Native Americans than the bonds between a husband and wife. The nuclear family did not form the foundation of American Indian society like it did for the English. There was also a distinction between common and elite marriage. Elites (tribal leaders) practiced polygamy, while most Indians had only one partner. Because many extended family members lived in a residence together, children were raised communally. Also, sexual activity prior to marriage was not taboo as it was in Puritan society.

Plane distinguished four types of marriage in Native American society: some marriages were arranged in childhood and some in adulthood, but both of these involved a dowry paid to the woman’s family. In the third and fourth types, a man and woman chose to marry by either having a public ceremony or by simply taking up residence with each other.

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My Favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer Seasons

buffy1Few people remember the 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer staring Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens, and Luke Perry, but the television show based on it would go on to become hugely popular. Buffy is one of my favorite horror comedies from the ’90s. Joss Whedon wrote it as a serious vampire film, but the studio turned it into a comedy. In a stroke of luck, he was able to return to his original vision when he created the TV series.

The series retained the essential elements of the film: a teenage “Valley Girl” destined to become the chosen slayer of vampires, her watcher, and an ancient evil that unleashes a plague of vampires on her hometown. The TV show occasionally references the events of the movie, but not explicitly. Buffy the Vampire Slayer the series starred Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, and Alyson Hannigan had a seven season run, from 1997 to 2003. It quickly gained a cult following. The following is a list of my favorite seasons, ranked from best to worst and why.

1. Season Six

buffy-season-6-review
Willow gets revenge

At the beginning of season six, Willow resurrects Buffy, who died at the end of season five. Although her friends believe they rescued her from Hell, Buffy had actually been in Heaven. This causes her to be depressed for most of the season, and leads to her giving in to Spike’s affections. Willow becomes addicted to magic, and a new set of antagonists, a group of nerds called “The Trio,” are introduced. When one of the Trio accidentally kills Willow’s girlfriend, Tara, Willow is consumed by revenge and rages out of control. She attempts to destroy the world to end everyone’s suffering. By reminding Willow of their friendship, Xander is the only one who can bring her back from the brink.

Season six is my favorite because I like Willow’s character and liked to see her progression over the course of the season. In past episodes, we caught a glimpse of what “evil Willow” might be like, and season six shows her as a formidable opponent. Of all characters on Buffy, Willow is the only one to undergo a significant evolution and the only one besides Buffy who ever had an entire season’s story arch devoted to her. In this season, Buffy and friends find their relationships tested like never before, which makes for great drama. In the end, Xander is the one who saves the day, not through great strength or magic, but simply through friendship, devotion, and love. Although I personally disliked the musical episode, “Once More, with Feeling,” it is a fan favorite.
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Leadership: Alexander the Great vs. Darius III

alexandervdarius1Oliver Stone’s 2004 film Alexander presented an interesting contrast in leadership styles, particularly during its portrayal of the Battle of Gaugamela. From what I’ve read about the battle, Oliver Stone’s cinematic reenactment is fairly accurate. But it’s not the film’s accuracy or the battle tactics (per se) that I want to highlight. The battle shows the benefits and pitfalls of authoritarian vs shared leadership styles, personified in the characters of Alexander the Great and Persian King Darius III.

Historically, the Battle of Gaugamela was fought in what is today northern Iraq in 331 BC between the Hellenic League army, led by Alexander the Great, and the Persian army, led by Darius III. Alexander’s father, Philip II of Macedon, formed the the Hellenic League, a federation of Greek states, in 337 BC and was elected its Hegemon. Philip plotted to invade the Achaemenid Persian Empire in revenge for Persia’s previous invasions of Greece, but was assassinated before he could carry it out.

Alexander the Great took up this campaign and after a series of battles met King Darius III’s army near Gaugamela. Darius’ army is thought to have outnumbered Alexander’s 100,000-250,000 to 47,000. It was the largest army ever assembled at the time. Darius chose a flat, open plane on which to fight in order to maximize the effectiveness of his heavy chariots. Alexander, however, developed a tactic to defeat the chariots, and they were never again used as a weapon of war.

Alexander crushed Darius by executing a faint with his cavalry on the right flank, then turning to exploit a gap that opened in the Persian center. In Alexander, the Hellenic army is portrayed as a professional army of free men, fighting against a mass of poorly equipped conscripts drawn from all over the Persian Empire. When Darius fled, his army gradually crumbled and melted away.

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Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean

51znevyguwlHurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624-1783 by Matthew Mulcahy is a revealing look at an obscure topic. Historians rarely give weather such an in-depth treatment, so it’s interesting to see how these weather events affected Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Quite a bit, as it turns out. Hurricanes influenced colonists’ morale, their perception of the natural world, health, social order, and economy. Hurricanes were an ever-present disruptive force that compelled colonists, and plantation owners in particular, to change the way they did business. They also caused an untold amount of damage to crops, human capital (slaves), and shipping throughout the region. Colonists had to rebuild and replant after every major hurricane in addition to meeting their basic survival needs, which put strains on every other aspect of colonial life.

Hurricanes undermined colonists’ morale by challenging the concept of improvement and by testing their faith that they could “dominate and transform” nature. British colonists came to the Caribbean with a sense they were pursuing a divine mission, so when hurricanes destroyed everything they built, their faith was shaken. “The threat from hurricanes helped create a sense of fragility and uncertainty among colonists as the possibility of violent destruction and chaos hovered over the region each year,” Mulcahy argued.

Central to the colonists’ sense of themselves was the belief they were taming and improving nature, but the destruction wrought by hurricanes demonstrated that nature would not be so easily tamed. Ironically, some of the “improvements” made to the Caribbean islands, such as the cutting down of trees, made colonists more vulnerable to the storms. Taken together, these effects caused some colonists to question whether they could successfully transplant English life and culture to the Caribbean.

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Dark Planet: Visions of America

dark-planetDark Planet: Visions of America, released in 2005 by Illuminati Pictures, portrays four youth subcultures as they are lived on the streets of the contemporary United States: skinhead, straightedge, black metal, and zealot. The documentary’s creators, Jason “Molotov” Mitchell and his wife, Patricia “DJ Dolce” Mitchell, are a new breed of conservative Christian, combining traditional values with a hipster ascetic. Both provide video commentary for WND.com. But “Molotov” Mitchell is familiar with subcultures and life on the streets. A former punk, Mitchell spent a year voluntarily living on the street and converted to evangelical Christianity in the late 1990s. D.J. Dolce appears in the documentary, but her relationship with the director, “Molotov” Mitchell, is not revealed in the film.

Dark Planet features interviews with members of all four subcultures. Three (skinhead, straightedge, and black metal) have evolved out of music scenes, and the fourth (zealot) was formed around evangelical Christianity. Zealot was the only subculture in this documentary that has not received much attention in literature about youth cultures, and seems to have been entirely made up by the filmmakers. Zealots, like straightedgers, reject drugs and alcohol, but also oppose pornography and feminism. They do not shy away from tattoos, piercings, and body modification.

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Reclaiming the ‘Spirit’ of Halloween

halloweenIs Halloween an evil holiday? Is it secretly pagan? Is Halloween too dangerous for children to celebrate? These are all questions that, sadly enough, many parents ask themselves every year. When I was a kid (way, way back in the 1980s), I can remember trick or treating with my older sister (when I was very young) and then when I was older, with a group of friends. We trick or treated at dusk, or when it was dark, and then afterwards we joined our parents for a Halloween party at a neighbor’s house. Nearly every home was decorated in some way for the holiday.

Years later, when I was in college, I joined my then girlfriend for Halloween at her parent’s house in a small town in central Illinois. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Parents actually drove their kids from house to house and walked them to each door (the few that came). The idea seemed to be “hurry up and get away” from your neighbors as fast as possible. As we drove through town, we saw very few homes decorated for the holiday. Where was the sense of community I had experiences as a child? As I’ve gotten older, particularly in the last several years, Halloween seems to have turned into just another excuse for twenty-somethings to dress in “sexy” costumes and get drunk. What happened to my favorite holiday?

Scott Richert, editor of Chronicles Magazine and the About.com Catholicism expert, has written a series of enlightening articles about Catholicism and Halloween, why Christians should celebrate the holiday, and where a lot of misconceptions about Halloween come from. These articles will be interesting to secular-minded readers as well. I’ll summarize them below, but you can read all three at these links: “Halloween, Jack Chick, and Anti-Catholicism,” “Why the Devil Hates Halloween,” and “Should Catholics Celebrate Halloween?

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