“This rolling, the pilot explained, was caused by the hundreds of horses within the ship. Sensing movement, all of the horses roped to one side of the hull would suddenly rear backward in alarm, causing a slight roll. This in turn would startle the horses anew and cause those on the opposite side to step back. The side-to-side roll became more pronounced with each cycle, to the point where the ship looked as if it were being buffeted by a heavy sea. This, the pilot explained, was called a ‘horse storm,’ and under certain conditions it could bang a ship against its wharf and damage deck rails and boats.”
– Erik Larson, “Dead Wake”
The Captain of that ship in New York harbor, which was hauling horses to Europe in support of the war effort, was William Thomas Turner. Only 14 months earlier Turner had been Captain of the ill-fated Lusitania when she was torpedoed off the Irish coast on her way to Liverpool. There is at least some evidence to suggest that The Luce had been intentionally dangled as bait by Churchill and the various Lords of the British Admiralty–to draw a reluctant America into the war–but in the event the politics of it hardly mattered. The evacuation of Lusitania was a disaster, with life boats spilling into the sea from their davits and bodies tumbling overboard into the cold Atlantic. Turner stayed on the bridge and went down with his ship. That he was rescued, unconscious, from the water some time later can only be a miracle. The Admiralty, hiding its secrets (it had known all along that U20 was in the area and sinking ships, and that Lusitania had been declared a target) tried to fix the blame on Turner in a series of inquests and hearings. They claimed he failed to “zig zag” to avoid submarines.
When he was ashore Turner enjoyed beekeeping. He was said to be a very kind man. He died mostly alone.
Over a week into Russia’s war on Ukraine we can feel the ship of earth rocking from the horse storm in the hold. Uncertainty abounds. Predictions fill the air waves. About the only thing missing is a slightly deranged man wearing a “The End is Nigh” sandwich board on every street corner. Comrade Putin has long shown the world that he is a proponent of Total War, the utter destruction of anyone, anything, or any place that stands in his path. He’s done that everywhere he has sent his armies, from Grozny to Aleppo, and it is probable that he has murdered hundreds of his own citizens in false-flag bombings throughout Russia to gin up popular will. We know that he is unafraid of unintended consequences. He has used polonium to murder Alexander Litvinenko, and the nerve agent Novichok which killed an utterly innocent Dawn Sturgiss, and somehow managed to sprinkle Novichok in the underwear of dissident Alexander Navalny. Navalny lived, but likely regrets returning to Russia as he will undoubtedly spend the rest of his days rotting to death in prison.
The Russian army has been unimpressive thus far. From 30,000 feet they appear to lack the ability to coordinate fires. They still do not own the airspace. Reports suggest that Russian conscripts were deceived, that they have surrendered in droves, and in some cases may have sabotaged their own equipment. Is any of that true? It is certain that psychological operations are underway in every direction, but one still sees very few reasons to doubt the hapless and child-like POWs interviewed on tv. That many Russians are also fighting hard and effectively is certainly clear, but sifting through the fog of war for truth is always difficult–perhaps more than ever in this age of information saturation where there is at least some reason to doubt almost everything one sees, reads, or hears about.
Putin has been praised as a genius by a former President of the United States, derided as a murderous KGB thug by people who have lived under his rule, secretly admired by closet tyrants, and trusted by people who should know better — including the entire nation of Germany.
I was hoping for at least some measure of projected strength from President Biden’s State of the Union address. I knew better than to expect it but nevertheless I want good things for our nation, and what it mostly represents to the rest of the world. But we don’t elect those kinds of people to the highest office in our land. What I saw instead was a doddering old man in a constant fight with his teleprompter. What passion he could muster felt false. He looked physically weak. He was uninspired and was uninspiring. He lied continually and reminded me of the CNN Reporter standing in front of an entire city block on fire while declaring the scene to have been a peaceful protest. He was flanked by two of the strangest women on planet earth, Kamala Harris–who is so obviously out of her depth she has become a national embarassment–and Nancy Pelosi, with her crazy-eyes, meth-mouth, and hand-rubbing weirdness, and who stood up on her feet to have a happy-dance when Biden wandered into the topic of military burn pits.
And then Justice Breyer had a kind of epileptic seizure when Biden gave him the nod for his service on the bench. Elsewhere in the gallery two Republican representatives–one of whom was popped for recently attending an actual white nationalist event–went leaping about like Texas high school cheerleaders in a dance competition. There was an old crone with purple hair who represents somebody. The Generals looked as though they had all eaten psychedelic mushrooms and were in that pale and vomitous phase before the hallucinations really kick in. Mitch McConnell looked exactly like an apple core left in a summer windowsill. And of course there was Eric Swalwell, best known for banging a Chinese spy in his Georgetown apartment while serving on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, mugging for camera time and elbowing in for an autograph. Several representatives spent the entire speech on their cell phones, several were caught napping off a drunk, and AOC was spotted making angry faces in the gallery and brachiating around like a howler monkey in the treetops.
The entire spectacle was humiliating, but then again the only reason I even watch is to make notes on this continuing theater of the absurd.
Putin knows all of this about us. He knows how to exploit the gap between who we think we are and what we actually are. We don’t even appear to make it difficult for him. Putin can only look at the ass clowns who occupy the highest seats in our government and see profound weakness, fecklessness, and incompetence. That’s what I see, and I’m on our side.
If you have not read Fiona Hill’s excellent book Mr. Putin, do yourself a favor and read it. Ms. Hill, a former intelligence officer, has spent her career becoming the west’s leading expert on Putin and his motives. In a recent interview published by Politico, Ms. Hill said “…what Putin is saying now is that Ukraine doesn’t belong to Ukrainians. It belongs to him and the past. he is going to wipe Ukraine off the map, literally, because it doesn’t belong on his map of the ‘Russian world.’ He’s basically told us that. He might leave behind some rump statelets…if Vladimir Putin has his way, Ukraine is not going to exist as the modern-day Ukraine of the last 30 years.”
Asked if she thought Putin would actually use a nuclear weapon, Ms. Hill said: “The thing about Putin is, if he has an instrument, he wants to use it. Why have it if you can’t? He’s already used a nuclear weapon in some respects. Russian operatives poisoned Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium and turned him into a human dirty bomb and polonium was spread all around London at every spot that poor man visited.”
Perhaps most ominously in this interview, Hill was asked if we are on the brink of World War III. Her answer: “We’re already in it. We have been for some time. We keep thinking of World War I, World War II as these huge set pieces, but World War II was a consequence of World War I. And we had an interwar period between them. And in a way, we had that again after the Cold War…All of the conflicts we are seeing have roots in earlier conflicts…people shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that we’re just on the brink of something. We’ve been well and truly in it for quite a long period of time.”
Many of those who know him, who have talked to him, who have moved in his orbit, suggest something in Putin has changed. They point to his puffy face, his angry countenance. There are rumors that he uses steroids to treat back issues. The world has turned on smaller things, but it’s interesting to wonder if the world is turning now because Putin’s back hurts.
In Mr. Putin Hill writes: “… Vladimir Putin needs to be taken seriously. He will make good on every promise or threat. If Putin says he will do something, then he is prepared to do it, and he will find a way of doing it, using every method at his disposal…Vladimir Putin is a fighter and he is a survivalist. He won’t give up, and he will fight dirty if that’s what it takes to win. He didn’t give up as a kid in the Leningrad courtyards. He didn’t give up in Chechnya. He won’t give up in Ukraine or elsewhere in Russia’s neighborhood. Vladimir Putin’s rules for street fighting are essentially the same as his principles in domestic and foreign politics. Establish credibility and don’t back down until the advantage is yours and you’ve made your point.”
So far, everything Fiona Hill has suggested has turned out to be true. We may not be able to change any of it, and we may have to watch as the United States government continues trying to fight from its back foot, with its hands caught up in a Chinese finger-puzzle, but we can at least get informed and know something, and speak with confidence. And we can, each one of us, end this dystopian modern tendency to look at a known and identifiable thing and call it something else. That isn’t just delusional, it’s extremely dangerous.
Incidentally, in the winter of 1916 Captain Turner was reassigned by Cunard to captain the Invernia. The ship had been recommissioned for war duty. It carried troops, not horses, but on January 1, 1917, off the island of Crete, he was torpedoed again. 153 soldiers and crew perished in the Mediterranean. Turner survived. And it is said that he was zig-zagging with all the steam he could muster at the time.