Uncle Thor's Lessons, Anecdotes and Humor


ISIL: Opportunist State

The so-called ISIL caliphate is an opportunist government. It emerged initially in the power vacuum caused by the Syrian civil war. ISIL was able to expand rapidly by filling in another power vacuum in Iraq. The caliphate was welcomed by Sunnites seeking some kind of way to deal with the injustices of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government.

In the grand scheme of things, ISIL is a place-holder. Nature abhors a vacuum. Just as with physics, so it is with politics and government. Its ability to stand has been augmented by the kind of leadership and technical expertise ISIL has been able to attract. Further acquisition of oilfields and money plundered from banks in conquered areas had provided the wealth to fuel its existence and its war machine. If there is any doubt that ISIL is a lucky opportunist, consider that it brought almost no military ordnance of its own except infantry weapons. All of ISIL’s tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons were captured from fleeing Syrian and Iraqi forces. And while there are some shady arms dealers who are doubtlessly selling their wares to the caliphate, none are significant enough to provide heavy weapons and armored fighting vehicles in quantities worth noting.

ISIL has been able to attract fighters from across the Muslim world, most of whom are Middle Eastern Arabs, Chechens, Dagestanis and Pakistanis. Many come with military training via the national armies of their home nations. Some even have prior combat experience. I do not know what percentage of enlistees have prior military experience, but these men can be integrated into existing ISIL units rather quickly. Among them are the men who have training to use the many weapons systems that ISIL captured. Tank crewmen, artillery gun crews, communications men and crewmen for heavy infantry weapons come already trained. Any tank, artillery piece or heavy weapon made from 1950 to the present can be put to almost immediate use.

ISIL’s leaders are not a bunch of ragged sand people. All evidence shows that they train their troops and provide good small-unit leadership. Their forces are disciplined enough to provide a credible threat to the Syrian factions and Iraq. It is no wonder that the force that has withstood them firmly, the Kurds, are also disciplined and trained fighters.

At the top, ISIL has people who can handle money and who can run oil operations. They also have people who can sell the oil in bulk on the black market. Just as they have done well with Internet media and recruitment, so they have been able to maintain a working economy.

For all they have, ISIL can only stand so long as the power vacuum continues. For all its bluster and noise, it is an aberration rather than a phenomenon. ISIL has almost no air power and no notable allies. Its shipping is not much different than smuggling. ISIL has neither a maritime nor an air cargo fleet. Military hardware is mostly what it has captured. Acquiring more via arms deals will yield little. The problem is not just buying it, but getting it to ISIL territory. One thing ISIL cannot survive is the war of attrition. The caliphate can be worn down by the slow and inexorable losses of military hardware, manpower and essentials for its economy.

ISIL can stand alone for the present. When the time comes that it needs allies and economic partners, its days are numbered. No stable government would ally with ISIL for a variety of reasons. Likewise, none will enter into an economic agreement with the caliphate. Ironically, ISIL has made enemies of nations that are inimical to one another. The Arab Gulf States and Iran both oppose it, even as they have their own cold war pitting Arabs against Persians. There seems to be some kind of non-aggression deal with Turkey, but that can unravel quickly. Without allies and a stable form of trade, ISIL will last only as long as its existing supplies of manpower, ordnance, food and fuel. Its survival depends on its ability to provide for itself with the means under its immediate control. That will also dwindle.

ISIL can fall apart in several ways. It may implode from within, splitting into hostile factions. It may be overcome from without by a stronger power, such as Turkey. And it may just crumble, its downfall accelerating as its infrastructure collapses. ISIL is a fierce dragon today, but once the region begins to stabilize, it will become a little sand lizard scurrying for cover.


Ramadi Plus 1

I said it last night: a big part of the current trouble in Iraq is based on sectarian strife. The Shiites who now control the Iraqi government are one faction, the others being Iraq’s Sunnite Muslims and the Kurds. While the Kurds are content to stand their ground for their own people, the dynamic between Shiite and Sunnite Iraqis is a major contributor to the current mess.

During the rule of the previous Iraqi prime minister, a Al Maliki, troubles began. Al Maliki was part of the Shiite majority. Two things happened on his watch. First, he let the Iraqi army deteriorate. Second, Al Maliki’s policies made the Sunnite minority feel oppressed and disenfranchised. Under his party’s rule, Iraq was becoming a Shiite state. Of course, he enjoyed the friendship of the neighbor to the East, Iran. Meanwhile, the Sunnites felt persecuted and cheated. That discontent led several Sunnite tribes to invite ISIL into the country.

Have we seen this before? Those of a certain age may remember the photo on the front page of the Daily News from the 1960s. A Vietnamese Buddhist monk had sat in the pose of meditation and set himself on fire. He was protesting the Catholic-dominated government’s unfair treatment of Buddhists. Some of the fellows stationed in Vietnam at the time felt that this was a sign that South Vietnam could not stand because of this division along sectarian lines. In any case, the rift between Catholic and Buddhist certainly eroded South Vietnam’s cohesiveness.

Buddhist and Catholics on one side, Sunnites and Shiites on the other. The current Iraqi government that promised to mend the rift between Shiite and Sunnite has decided to send in Shiite militias to re-take Ramadi. These are the same militias used to take Tikrit, another Sunnite city. These same militias were accused of atrocities against civilians. The militias are supported by Iran. You can be sure that the re-taking of Ramadi will be a horror show.

Perhaps the only solution to Iraq is to divide it into three countries: Kurdistan in the North, a Shiite state to the center and East, and Sunnite country to the West. You can be sure that in the midst of the split will be a lot of squabbling over oil.


Ramadi Again

The fall of Ramadi to ISIL further illustrates the quagmire that is Iraq. ISIL has shown that it has more resolve, initiative, cohesion and a sense of direction. Iraq is fractious and lacks the resolve necessary to successfully defend its territory. The only sturdy element is its autonomous Kurdish people. ISIL has learned to lessen its activities against the Kurds, who fight back hard, and aim at the Shiite-dominated parts of the country. Why risk the chance of more setbacks by attacking a hardened foe when you can make gains against a weaker one?

ISIL could never have emerged prior to the fall of Iraq and the civil war in Syria. Saddam provided unity and direction to the old Iraqi nation. Assad did the same for Syria. The new Iraqi government does neither. The various factions of Syria do not have the power to annihilate ISIL. It is the Kurds who have done best against the caliphate. The Kurds are united and willing to follow direction necessary to win.

The Iraqi forces in Ramadi had been told to hold their positions and that help was on the way. They were low on ammunition and isolated. “Help” was going to be too late, if it arrived at all. Nobody can blame the soldiers and policemen for retreating under those circumstances. The people to blame are the commanders of the Iraqi army and the political leadership.

What makes ISIL so difficult an adversary? For one thing ,they draw troops from all over the Muslim world. Most are Arab. A few are Russians: Chechens and Dagestanis. Some are Bosnian, or Pakistani. ISIL offers a good salary, by Middle Eastern standards. In a part of the world where the gulf between rich and poor is wide, and unemployment can be over 50%, the appeal is obvious. A young man can sign on and send home enough money for his extended family to live comfortably. These people are so poor that the risk to life and limb is worth it if it means helping the family. (We had a similar thing here during the Civil War. Several states offered hefty recruitment bonuses. New York, a major port of debarkation for Irish immigrants, offered $300. One or two of the oldest sons would enlist, giving the family enough money to buy a small farm. These people were so poor the risk was worth it.)

ISIL attracts fighters from various countries, Several have Universal Conscription, meaning all men must serve in the military for one to two years. A percentage of their recruits already have military training and experience. Some even have combat experience. From these, it is no problem to develop a cadre to train inexperienced fighters. ISIL’s experienced troops come from armies who may have had training based on Russian, British, French or American standards. They can easily find men trained to handle the full gamut of military equipment such as heavy weapons, artillery and tanks.

To be fair, most of the training was not up to Western standards. It can be considered a “lighter” form of training than Western armies give their own troops. This means that ISIL has good small-unit leadership because it gets its troops to perform well on the battlefield. (As General Pershing said, a good leader can get mediocre troops to perform well.)

Iraq has put its sectarian divisions and the goals of its political leadership ahead of the Iraqi nation as a whole. ISIL controls Sunnite territories. The majority Shiite government does not seem too alarmed about that. Perhaps they feel that if the Shiite areas were seriously threatened, Iran might join the fight. As for the US involvement in air strikes: is it really meant to preserve Iraq? Or are we striking in Iraq and Syria as a pre-emptive measure to keep ISIL away from our other allies such as Jordan and Israel?


Amusing Observations on Belief

Two stories sum up several of my observations about people and religion.

One of the people with whom I worked told me an amusing tale about a friend of his. The friend had gotten caught up in the self-help books. Back in the 1980s, there was a craze for this sort of thing. He would read a book and then tell all his friends that it was THE book that answered everything for him. Two weeks later, and he had found another book that had THE answers. This went on for a few months. One day, when the man came raving about the latest book, my co-worker asked him: ‘What about that book you told me about two weeks ago. You said that one had the answer.”

The man replied, “Oh, that? Ha! That’s nothing. THIS is THE book that says it all.” And so the man continued his drive through the self-help genre.

Several folks from the neighborhood used to talk at the coffee shop around the corner. (This was my old neighborhood from over 25 years ago.) Knowing I had a good understanding of various religions and philosophies, a fellow named Ray asked me about a few of them. He was a regular at the coffee shop. Satisfied that I would understand, he told me of a couple who had taken up with one of those New Age fads. Was it Eckankar or Mind Control or Og Mandino, I cannot be sure. Ray told me they went to regular classes and had gotten quite involved in the philosophy.

A year later, Ray noticed that it did make a difference in them. When they argued, they had a whole new set of words for the same old fight. Instead of saying “ You’re being stupid!” they now said things like , “Your consciousness is cloudy” or “You need to raise your awareness.”

Same fight, same intent, and all that study just to get different words for the same old thing. I am reminded of the phrase: “switching seats on the Titanic.”

Two stories. One is about a search to find the answers without having first asked the right questions. The second is a change in beliefs that is really not much of a change at all. Same old stuff, different words, different temple.


Vietnam + 40

The fall of Saigon was 40 years ago. When we left Vietnam in `73, we left behind a trained and well-equipped army. In `75, many of the South Vietnamese troops just dropped their weapons and ran. They did not fight to preserve their country.

When the US left Iraq, we left behind a trained and well-equipped army. Last year, ISIL attacked Iraq. The Iraqi army crumbled. The trained army had let itself atrophy under a divisive political system.

Saigon. Mosul. The only difference is that one segment of Iraq, the Kurds, put up a fight even when outgunned and outnumbered. The rest of Iraq cut and ran.

I am opposed to putting “boots on the ground.” The people who ought to be fighting on the ground are the Iraqis. If they cannot or will not do so, then their lack of resolve tells us how little they value their freedom. One thing is certain. We do not need to get caught up in another quagmire.


Runes Around You

No matter what fields of interest I pursue, connections to the Runes and other aspects of Heathenism are revealed. This is not some New Age mish-mosh, nor the old Hermetic thing of attributing everything to an Element or a thing symbolized by a Planet. It is there and evident: an outworking of a potency and its manifestation in the everyday, phenomenal world.

Among the things that interest me are railroads, military history and tactics, physics, geology, seismology & vulcanology, human nature, meteorology, oceanography, and so much more. This is a big world with many interesting things for us to enjoy. It all interests me. And in all these interests I find correlations to the Runes many times over.

It is easy to say, “Oh, yes, transportation is the Raido Rune, education is the Ken Rune and Thurs describes Vulcanology.” Those are facile descriptions. It is within them that we see so much more. Raido is a Rune of time and space. That includes scientific concepts like Relativity as well as measurements of time and distance. What is speed but the time it takes to traverse a given distance? The Runes are rich in meaning for those who pay attention.

Each Rune also has a “feel” to it. Actually, each has several of them. We can experience them if we take time to go to a place where the Rune’s manifestations are strongest. One can experience essences of the Fe Rune in places where animals are raised and sold as livestock. It is also felt in financial places, such as banks. Those places that deal with raw material also have a piece of Fe.

Raido can be felt in a busy train station or bus terminal. It is best if several routes and forms of transportation converge on that place. Go there when things are quiet. Visit again during peak times, like “rush hour.” Raido is being a passenger. How different it is to the Eh Rune, where one rides a horse or drives the car. Instead of being cargo as in Radio, the individual has freedom to choose and pursue a route to a destination.

The Naud Rune is one of pressure and compression. It crushes downward and inward. Opposite it is Jer ,which expands. Think of the clockwork spring in a wind-up toy that produces energy as it expands from a tight coil to an open one. Gyfu is like crossing a bridge from one side to the other. This is an exchange of places. Hagal is a burst that scatters randomly. Think of a shotgun’s blast or a hailstorm. Tyr is focused and aimed, and not random at all. Using advertising to illustrate the contrast, Hagal sends out mass numbers of flyers hoping a few fall into the hands of the right people. Tyr is an aimed campaign using data to send advertisements directly to the most likely customers. It would use specific criteria to determine who these customers are, and avoid sending to uninterested people.

The above are a few examples of places where Runes abide openly in the everyday world. You can find many more by purposeful observation. The connections are not secrets. They cannot be kept from you if you seek them. All you have to do is pay attention and be patient. Answers come as they will.


Writing for Effect

Essential to good writing is to make sure that the message you want to convey is the message that your reader receives. With all too many writers, what the person means to say and how he actually says it are two different things. The reader gets a very different message than what was intended. That is, if he gets any message at all. This is why, when proofing your work, you have to take the role of your reader. You know what you mean to say, but will your reader know what you mean?

Part of the problem is using too much talk to convey a simple idea. If the reader has to work his way through all that flowery prose, will he get the full impact of the message? Yes, there are folks who think writing is a way to show off their literary skills. Too bad that the reader gets caught in a confusing jumble of fancy language that obscures rather than illuminates.

In 24 years of publishing, I have never had anyone contact me and ask to explain what I meant in something I wrote. I have never been asked to clarify, restate, or otherwise transliterate my writing so the person could understand what I meant. My way is to write clearly and present ideas so that people can appreciate them and, when necessary, use them. What is better: to give a lengthy and wordy description of, say, the Naud Rune, or to get to the point and tell folks that the power manifests in things that have the root word “press” : compress, repress, pressure, suppress, etc.?

Fancy word craft is fine for novels and short stories. It has no place in books meant to inform, educate and instruct. Just look at an Army manual. It gets right to the point, complete with illustrations. No mincing words or fancy descriptions. Here it is; this is how it works; this is what it does and here is how you use it.

I do appreciate a good book. There are occasions when seeing things in another field provide an excellent example. Recently, I read a “how to” book on model railroading that impressed me. Within its chapters were extra things such as using layout-planning software, working with a unique track system and how to set up and use a digital control system. An average person reading that book would know about the subjects and even more, be able to do them himself. It was clear, thorough and well-illustrated. Ironically, another book I reviewed at the same time in that genre was less accommodating. It talked about a new track system and command control, but did not show much on how to use either. The book urged buying its author’s other book on track plans if one wanted to learn to use it, though. That’s a cheesy attempt at self-promotion. How much better if there had been instruction in the first book, like the competitor’s book did.

Write for your readership. Make sure that the message you send is the message they receive. Proof and edit your work with that goal in mind. If you are providing instruction, make sure that you give the reader what he needs to do it.


Defender of the Faith

Many years ago, I read a short story about a sergeant who was assigned a group of new troops. He was stateside, having served in Europe in World War II. One of the troops noticed that the sergeant was Jewish. The soldier was also Jewish and tried to cultivate a friendship with the sergeant. On one occasion, the NCO allowed the soldier to have a pass to go to a religious service. He found out later that the man went out partying and ended up in a Chinese restaurant. To make a long story short, the soldier tried to play up his shared background with the sergeant to get favors.

As it was, the sergeant was a fair man who resented very much that the soldier used his shared heritage to try to get over on him. In the end, when it came time to assign the troops, the sergeant assigned the man to the Pacific. It was still a hot combat zone. The man seemed surprised, but as the sergeant felt he had to do it. The title of the story was “Defender of the Faith.”
Supposedly, it was based on a real event.

It is all about the difference between getting over and standing up.

Where is the difference between letting a shared heritage or affiliation open a door or become a “get-over”? This is a good question to consider. The characters in the story were Jewish, but it could apply to almost any ethnicity, religion, membership, association, etc.


Like and Hate

The comic book fans have been going on about one of the original X-Men coming out as gay. This has happened before with other comic characters. I cannot see how sexuality has to be an issue in comic books. When I read them as a kid, I did not think about it at all.

This comes as a Pennsylvania high school has seen a backlash against Gay rights. I never heard of it before, but supposedly since 2000 there has been a “Day of Silence” for gays. While some of the students in the Pennsylvania ( bumpkin state) school honored the day, others rebelled. They wore flannel shirts as a token of their anti-gay stance. Unfortunately, there were a couple of incidents of violence and harassment.

A couple years ago, gays began boycotting Chick-Fil-A because the company donated to a Christian group whom the gays disliked. The funny thing was when Mike Huckabee, a religious looney and politician, urged people to come out in support of Chick-Fil-A. There were hour-long lines going into the restaurants.

There is a point that needs to be addressed: just as there are many people supporting gays, so there are many who do not. No amount of propaganda, protesting or anything else is going to sway folks on one side to the other. By law, they have this right. It is called the Right of Association. Harassing people for those with whom they choose to associate – or not – is puerile.

One of the problems here are weak, whiny types who get upset because someone does not like them. You find them on both sides of the fence on any issue. They make the most fuss and ignore the hard reality. No matter who you are and what you do, there are people out there who hate you for it. They don’t know you but based on whatever criterion they use, they hate you. No matter what your race or ethnicity, there is someone who holds it against you. The same goes for your religious affiliation, your gender, your age, political favorites, occupation, and even the neighborhood in which you live. Nobody is exempt. Having a skin color and gender is all it takes to be hated. Do not cry about it or fuss over it. That is just the way things are.

Reason has little to do with it. Few people can give a logical reason for it. Nonetheless, there it is. You can cry over it. You can complain. You can try to convince folks who hate you that you are a wonderful person. All of that changes nothing. No matter what you do or say, to those who hate you will always be “one of THEM.”

Understand that however you feel and who and what ever you are, there are folks who like you for it and others who hate you for the same thing. Do not take it personal. Choose your own associations and let the other guy choose his. Remember that life – and people – are unfair. You can choose not to hate. Considering that hate is a self-induced poison, you will be healthier and happier if you choose not to indulge in hatred.


That time again…

People think 4/20 is either National Stoner’s Day or Hitler’s Birthday. On April 20 of 2003, which happened to be an Easter Sunday, I had a heart attack. That was the beginning of my great cardiac adventure. In early Spring 2012, I had a congestive heart failure. Things got progressively worse by 2014. I knew by Summer that things were getting really bad. For whatever reason, I bought an NYC F7aa locomotive in O gauge in August. If I made it to Yule I was going to run it
In November, I had open heart surgery to replace a valve and do a single bypass. Never had I experienced such excruciating pain nor such a debilitating ordeal. This has not been easy. Last month I got some bug that has been going around and have had a hard time shaking it off. I do not know if I am getting better. (The doctor says I am.) Without that surgery, I would have been cold stone dead by Yule.

I have faced life-threatening danger before, but this is very different. Previously, scary incidents were sudden and brief. The cardiac stuff is slow and plodding.

The medical bills are choking us and other things are adding a burden of their own. Things get tough and they get tight. But as the French say, where there is Life there is hope. To which the Norsemen said in the Havamal, that where there is Death there is nothing. Better one living than one dead.

Thor is rumbling outside. We have a small line of brief thunderstorms headed this way. At times, thunder is a reminder of life. It is like the shout one makes in dire circumstances that says, “All is not lost!” What the Norsemen called “striving against fate” is the same as “refusing to capitulate without a fight.” Do not give up, Do not give in. Even if it looks hopeless, better to strive against it than lay back and let it roll over you.

We can be healed so that we may live. We may not be as strong or as agile or have as much endurance. We need to look at what we can do. There are times all we can do is fight to get better. There are times when we have to do something other than what we did before. We can heal, we can change, but we cannot stop living. Leave the rolling into a little ball to armadillos and pillbugs..Ours is to live and to do.

The F7 locomotive set ran on Yule. Pushing a silver cart in the old Norse temples was considered a service to Thor. Running an electric train can be a modern way to do the same thing. And the NYC F7 has “lightning-stripe” markings. The rumbling thunder and rain outside are very reassuring tonight.

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