Rendezvous in Space: space exploration documentary with faith in humanity and scientific progress

Frank Capra, “Rendezvous in Space” (1964)

A promotional industrial film made for the Martin Marietta Corporation – a precursor of Lockheed Martin – this curious documentary, looking rather like a collage of hard-boiled rocket launches, short mini-cartoons for children and a B&W newsreel of interviews with members of the public, is notable for being the last film made by former Hollywood director Frank Capra, famous for films like the perennial Christmas classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Mr Smith Goes To Washington”. By the early 1950s, Capra had become disillusioned with Hollywood culture and values, veering away from championing the common man, democracy and individualism, and becoming obsessed with (as he saw it) cynical, self-indulgent ideas such as hedonism, pursuing pleasure at the expense of morality and shocking the audience for the sake of shock; along with changes in the film industry and in the public mood following World War II which did not favour Capra’s own preferences for supporting the poor and the disadvantaged, Capra left Hollywood and began making science-based education documentaries, of which “Rendezvous in Space” was the last.

Jumping from a series of photos of parts of the Earth as it rotates, taken by a 1960s Mercury capsule with an astronaut on board, the film lavishes considerable attention on a series of rocket launches before settling on a short animation in which the moon (voiced by actor Jim Backus of “Gilligan’s Island” fame) complains about all the rockets zipping by from Earth. Next thing you know, film narrator Danny Thomas interviews various people in the street who are nonplussed by the idea of travelling in space. Another animation about the Chinese invention of rockets and fireworks follows which leads into a narrative about humans advancing into space and towards the heavens, and what future travel and working in space might be like in an extended animated sequence. A whimsical little sequence of cartoon flowers trying to follow the sun and figure out what is up and what is down is very amusing if rather lowbrow. At the end of the film, Thomas reappears to confidently predict how space exploration and the knowledge gained from it will benefit people’s lives. As the sun lights up the planet, Thomas proclaims that the light of “Man’s mind” will illuminate and give meaning and purpose to the universe.

While the film’s visual style and audio soundtrack might seem very outdated to contemporary audiences, and not a little jarring – Mel Blanc voicing various animated characters may remind modern audiences of old Looney Tunes cartoons – the documentary makes some surprisingly accurate predictions about what space exploration might be like: the sequence of humans working on a nuclear-powered research laboratory foretells the International Space Station. The space taxi is a forerunner of the space shuttle. Thomas’s final words might seem rather preposterously arrogant but they reflect Capra’s belief in the inherent goodness of humanity and his faith in US scientific and technological advancement at the time that such progress will ultimately benefit all humans and put an end to poverty and injustice.

The inconsistencies among the various sequences in the film, with some looking more serious and others rather silly, might reflect some confusion in the brief that Capra was given by the film’s sponsors in making the documentary. Some of Mel Blanc’s voices are no different from the voices he used for the characters of Bugs Bunny in the Looney Tunes cartoons or of Barney Rubble in the famous “The Flintstones” animated sitcom. The interviews on the street look staged. To be fair to the film, it was originally made for New York City’s World Fair in 1964, to be shown together as part of an exhibit with moving robot models, which would explain apparent gaps within the film’s narrative and the jumps it takes from one topic to another.

The film clearly isn’t a patch on the other, more famous feature movies and the science documentaries Capra had made. That “Rendezvous in Space” was the last feature Capra made, when he could have continued making Hollywood films, seems to me to be a sad footnote to what should have been a very long and illustrious career.

The irony that the film with its faith in human intelligence and reason that overcomes mental and emotional obstacles as well as physical obstacles to reach out into space was financed by a corporation later to become part of Lockheed Martin, one of the largest global defence contractors and a stalwart of the US military-industrial complex, is surely not lost on astute viewers.

Public Latrines in Ancient Rome: a droll introduction to Classical Roman daily life, culture and attitudes

Garrett Ryan, “Public Latrines in Ancient Rome” (Toldinstone, 15 December 2021)

In the space of seven minutes (as twenty seconds are devoted to the mention of the video sponsor whose business is relevant to the subject matter), historian Dr Garrett Ryan deftly gives a quick survey of the use of toilets, private and public, in cities and large towns in the Roman Empire. The first couple of minutes quickly dispenses with private toilets in houses and shops (often located near or even in kitchens so they could double as food garbage bins) and usually emptying into cesspits not necessarily connected to sewers which might allow noxious gases or unwelcome vermin to enter homes. Apartment dwellers made do with clay chamber-pots that would be emptied through the window into streets (and maybe onto unwary pedestrians) below; on many occasions the chamber-pot might well inadvertently follow the wastes with unfortunate, even fatal consequences for the unlucky pedestrians. Public latrines provided an alternative to private toilets and chamber-pots: they could range from two-seat facilities on the ground floors of apartment blocks through 12-seat facilities (fairly common) to massive buildings seating as many as 50, 70 and 80 patrons equipped with heated or mosaic floors, marbled panelling, painted walls and even statues. Even the seats themselves could be made of marble.

After the plug (ahem) for the sponsor, the video explains what using a public latrine would have been like for patrons: you would pass through a swinging door or curtain after paying a fee to the attendant into a dimly lit room (to help preserve privacy) and sit on one of several toilet seats set in bench-like constructions of stone (in southern Europe) or wood (in northern Europe) over hidden sewer pipes carrying grey water from public baths, to do your business. A slot beneath the seat allowed patrons to clean their privates with an absorbent soft Mediterranean-Sea sponge on a stick, moistened before use and cleaned after. Such items of course could spread disease (though Ryan does not mention that the sponge sticks might be cleaned with vinegar after use). Many Romans resorted to using pottery shards, old cloths or used papyrus as toilet paper, or splashed their privates with water. They would wash their hands in basins that were provided. The floors of public latrines were designed to be easily washable and narrow windows set high in the walls enabled some air flow and ventilation. Candles might have burned incense to disguise odours.

Public latrines did have their hazards: if they were located near the sea, the odd octopus might come crawling out of the toilet as did rats and snakes that might bite patrons on the family jewels; and the build-up of hydrogen sulphides together with methane gases beneath the seats caused explosions that did more severe damage than rats and snakes did.

The video is a very droll and entertaining introduction to Roman daily life and the customs and institutions of Roman culture and society. There is very little in the video about how the design of Roman-era public latrines reflects Roman attitudes about cleanliness, public hygiene and sanitation, and how they prioritised public sanitation over the control of public water supply (or not). Roman ideas about what was clean, what was dirty and what caused disease or encouraged disease or disease-causing parasites to spread were very different from ours – because much of our knowledge is built on what Romans did and on what others who followed them did.

Compared to other societies of their time and those that immediately followed them in Europe after Rome fell to Germanic invaders in the fifth century CE, the Romans did not do too badly in trying to keep large urban settlements in which hundreds if not thousands of people lived in crowded conditions, and public cleanliness and sanitation had to be a high priority for urban administrators, clean – and in many parts of Europe including Britain, Roman efforts in public sanitation (and even in building private toilets in houses and shops) were not exceeded until the late nineteenth or even early twentieth centuries.

The Disastrous Liberation of the Philippines: how the US failed to end war and suffering in 1944 – 1945

Carlton Meyer, “The Disastrous Liberation of the Philippines” (Tales of the American Empire, 10 December 2021)

In this short documentary, military historian Carlton Meyer makes his case that the US decision to liberate the Philippines from Japanese rule in 1944, when US armed forces could have bypassed that part of Southeast Asia (as they did with Singapore and Malaysia), and blockaded the island chains stretching from Formosa (Taiwan) through Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands to southern Japan, and even to the Korean Peninsula, was the most disastrous the US made in the Pacific front against Japan. By attempting to liberate the Philippines, the US action not only resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of US and Filipino soldiers, and of even more thousands of Filipino civilians and the destruction of Filipino cities, but delayed the conclusion of the war. Actions the US took to blockade Japan and cripple its military industries took place much later in 1945 than sooner in 1944. Japan’s offer to surrender might have been accepted sooner as well, though Meyer notes that the US deliberately delayed accepting Japan’s surrender because it wanted to demonstrate the effectiveness of its atomic bomb program to the Soviet Union and that program was not ready in early 1945.

Meyer lays out how the US could have effectively used a blockade of Japan to force that nation to surrender earlier and save millions of lives, not to mention using its troops in areas where they really were needed (in China and Korea perhaps) and thus preventing Soviet entry into the war against Japan. (This probably might not have stopped China and Korea from accepting Communist government but might have reduced popular support for the Communists.) Cutting supplies from Japan to the Philippines by an island blockade could have led to early Japanese surrender in the Philippines followed by an orderly withdrawal of Japanese troops – in most other parts of Asia and the Pacific region, Japanese soldiers surrendered and withdrew without necessarily fighting to the death – and the destruction of cities and towns in the Philippines would have been less severe.

The weakest part of the documentary is in Meyer’s attempt to find and explain why the US did not do what it should have done. There were individuals in the US Joint Chiefs of Staff who supported US Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz’s plan for blockading Japan. Meyer fingers US General Douglas Macarthur as the main advocate for retaking the Philippines in order to salvage his tattered reputation after his catastrophic defence of the Philippines against Japanese invasion in 1942. Whether the Roosevelt administration supported Macarthur over Nimitz’s plan or Nimitz changed his mind (under pressure from others perhaps), Meyer is unable to say. He is also unable to say what reasons may have attached to the US decision to liberate the Philippines and prolong the fighting unnecessarily, and if these reasons might themselves have been based on geopolitical or other agendas, the consequences of which would have given the US political, economic or other strategic advantages in East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific region.

Visual material including maps and archived film and photos help illustrate Meyer’s argument of what the US could and should have done. The voiceover narration can be quite fast and viewers may need to re-run the film to catch the details of what Meyer says. The implications of Meyer’s argument are enormous, as the decision not to follow Nimitz’s plan to blockade Japan resulted not just in unnecessary suffering, death and destruction but had widespread consequences for other parts of Asia beyond Japan and the Philippines which themselves generated further actions and results that are still working out in the geopolitics of this part of the world more than 70 years later.

In the context of Meyer’s Tales of the American Empire series, it’s hard not to think that the US decision to “liberate” the Philippines in the way this was done was perhaps to keep the Filipino people in such a wretched and impoverished state that they would never be able to press for independence.

How a Fish Bankrupted the Roman Aristocracy: a tale of a culinary craze in classical society

Dr Garrett Ryan, “How a Fish Bankrupted the Roman Aristocracy” (Told In Stone, 27 November 2021)

In this instalment in his Told In Stones series which explores culture and society in Classical Greece and Rome, historian Dr Garrett Ryan investigates fine dining amongst the aristocratic elites in Rome and the craze for red mullet that seized them during early imperial times. Ryan first describes the diet of ordinary Romans which was heavy on carbohydrates (in the form of bread or porridge), legumes and fruit, and cheese, and light on animal protein. Wealthy Romans on the other hand could afford a vast range of foods and especially meats: shellfish, snails, all kinds of poultry and game birds, and red meats … including the notorious predilection for stuffed dormice. Such foods were usually served at evening banquets consisting of several courses ending in desserts of fruit, nuts and honey. The Roman elites were especially fond of delicacies that modern Western palates would find odd or downright unpalatable, such as parts of the internal plumbing of sows or the working parts of songbirds. Many of these foods were doused in a sauce called garum, made from the fermented intestines of fish and used in ways similar to how fish sauce is currently used in Southeast Asian cuisines.

Pride of place in his talk is given to red mullet (actually two species of small fish) which was eaten both for its supposed aphrodisiac and (paradoxically) contraceptive properties. The high demand for red mullet among Roman elites coupled with the difficulty of domesticating the creature and farming it drove prices for the fish to such levels that a banquet featuring a dozen large mullets could rival a small villa in cost. Overfishing would have driven up prices for red mullet even further, fuelling the craze. The obsession with red mullet and the status attached to it, with all the signals of power and hierarchy attached to being able to host banquets featuring the fish in a number of dishes, apparently lasted some 200 years before fading away.

While the talk is very entertaining and funny, and as usual is illustrated with stunning visuals, it actually says nothing about how the demand for the fish “bankrupted” the Roman elites – if anything, the Roman elites were already bankrupt, thanks to the fixed power structures of Roman society in which the elites lived in a world parallel with, and dependent on, the rest of Roman society while having very little to do with it – or how this craze and similar crazes were symptoms reflecting the nature of a layer of society far removed and insulated from the concerns and stresses that belaboured ordinary Romans. If there is a silver lining in this particular cloud, it may be that the Roman elites were such a small class of people that their greed, traumatic though it may have been for the populations of the two red mullet species in the seas around the Italian peninsula, did not have a huge impact on a society in which the rudiments of the modern financial economy that would make speculative bubbles based on the demand for and supply of red mullet or tulips possible did not yet exist.

A Murder Mystery in Roman Egypt: an entertaining exploration of legal trials during Roman imperial rule

Dr Garrett Ryan, “A Murder Mystery in Roman Egypt” (Told In Stone, 24 November 2021)

This entertaining little documentary is actually less a whodunnit tale and more an exploration of an aspect of Roman rule over Egypt during the Classical Era. As narrator Dr Ryan drily notes, Egypt was Roman for 600 years yet in many ways this region was distinct from the rest of the Roman Empire due to (as Ryan adds) its isolation from other Roman-ruled areas, its huge wealth and its unique history and cultural legacy at the time. For us moderns, another distinct aspect of Roman Egypt is that, compared to other parts of the Roman Empire, the province bequeathed an enormous wealth of papyrus documents ranging from literary works to taxation receipts thanks in no small part to its physical geography which favours the preservation of papyrus and thus the preservation of archived documents. Not to mention of course, Roman Egyptian citizens’ propensity to safeguard items and documents they considered valuable from the eyes and hands of thieves and robbers!

Many of the preserved documents from Roman Egypt feature court cases dealing with the resolution of crimes. The documents show that theft was the most common crime, and that much theft was opportunistic or the result of ongoing personal or family conflicts between the thief and the victim. In one case, a man attended a funeral and when he later went home, he found his house had been stripped bare of all its belongings. Occasionally organised crimes are mentioned and in some cases of organised crime, the local authorities who would have responsible for investigating crime have been paid off by the defendants. Skirmishes between rival villages – perhaps the ancient equivalent of Mafia-style vendettas – are reported. Interestingly, murders seem to be seldom mentioned – but when they are mentioned, they are quite dramatic, even sensational. Among the murder cases Dr Ryan mentions, a powerful Alexandrian city councillor is brought to trial for the murder of a prostitute despite his efforts to intimidate city authorities with his cronies: he comes face to face with the prostitute’s mother in a confrontation and (presumably in an outburst) gives himself away. The man is later executed for his crime. In another case, in the 2nd century CE a man called Artemidorus was mummified and buried: recent CT scanning shows the back of his head was crushed in a way consistent with being hit repeatedly by a blunt instrument.

The eponymous murder mystery is sourced from the transcript of a trial that took place in 6th-century Byzantine Egypt: the transcript itself was pieced together from fragments of papyri found in a pit in 1905 beneath an Egyptian villager’s house when the man was renovating it. Archaeologists investigating the trove of papyrus documents in the pit discovered it had belonged to a lawyer / landowner called Dioskuros. The documents include part of the transcript of the trial. As the rest of the transcript is lost, we cannot know the details of what exactly transpired but the trial revolved around a conspiracy that included bribery and two savage murders of a priest and a villager in the village of Aphrodito. A soldier and an aristocrat were brought to trial over the murders. The soldier apparently denied any involvement in the death of the priest. What transpired later in the trial remains unknown and Ryan speculates that the priest and villager may have been killed because they knew too much about a scheme, possibly of embezzlement, being hatched by people who may have been the defendants in the trial.

Illustrated with vivid stills and photographs of Roman and Byzantine-era mosaics, statues and portraits – one portrait being that of a Greek diviner called Artemidorus, though likely not the Artemidorus subjected to being bashed – the mini-documentary runs at a brisk pace, gossipy in some ways with quite droll commentary from Ryan. Though the murder mystery is never solved, it is told in a very captivating if perhaps rather speedy (and actually dry) way by the historian. The documentary gives an insight into an aspect of Roman rule and administration in Egypt, and how perhaps Roman institutions and the individual representatives of those institutions came up against and treated (or mistreated) local Egyptian people, and dealt with their conflicts and spats.

The 1964 Coup in Brazil: how Brazil and South America were set back for 21 years by US regime change action

Carlton Meyer, “The 1964 Coup in Brazil” (Tales of the American Empire, 12 November 2021)

This instalment in Meyer’s ongoing series investigating the long history of US imperialism across the globe focuses on the overthrow of Brazilian President João Goulart by his nation’s military in 1964 and the role the US government under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson played in that coup. Goulart came to power in Brazil in September 1961 on a platform of educational, taxation, electoral and land reforms aimed at benefiting the poor and stimulating the national economy. He was friendly towards the Castro government in Cuba during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and his belief in Cuban independence and self-determination led the Kennedy government to consider overthrowing Goulart’s government. The plan to get rid of Goulart became Operation Brother Sam. After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, US President Lyndon B Johnson then authorised a US naval task force and aircraft to travel to Brazil, ostensibly to conduct a military exercise, to support the March 1964 coup. The coup was organised by the CIA together with the Brazilian military.

The mini-documentary shows how supposedly progressive US governments like those of Kennedy and Johnson actually supported right-wing forces in Latin American nations and thwarted those nations’ drive for self-determination so as to safeguard US corporate interests. Archived film interviews and Brazilian television news reports help demonstrate how the Brazilian Chief of Army General Staff Castelo Branco was persuaded to support the coup by US military attaché Vernon A Walters who told him that the US naval force and aircraft would assist in regime change (to the extent of openly invading the country) if the coup were to falter. The film does not note that Castelo Branco later benefited from supporting the coup – he became President in April 1964 – which would have been rich irony.

As a result of the coup Brazil suffered repressive military rule for 21 years during which time the country served as the model and template for US-assisted overthrow of other South American leaders and governments deemed undesirable by Washington DC: this 21-year period includes the 1973 overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende by the Chilean military. Many consequences of the 1964 coup against Goulart were to follow and are still working their effects through Brazilian society and the rest of South America. Unfortunately Meyer’s video, concentrating on the details of Goulart’s overthrow and the US role in it, does not have the time or the scope to cover the full significance of the coup for Brazil and the entire Latin American region.

Vampires in Greek Myth: an introduction to a universal cultural phenomenon through the Ancient Greek worldview

Dr Garrett Ryan, “Vampires in Greek Myth” (Told In Stone, 30 October 2021)

Casting our fears regarding death and women who might be less than ideal mothers or loving wives and partners by personifying them as bloodthirsty monsters – in other words, vampires or vampire equivalents – seems to be a universal practice across all human cultures. Post-Classical Greek culture certainly believed in vampire-like beings but may have borrowed the concept from Slavs who migrated into the Balkans during the 5th and 6th centuries CE. Did the Greeks of Classical times also believe in vampires? Dr Ryan’s short film tutorial shows the ancient Greeks certainly did believe in bloodthirsty female demons or ghosts that preyed upon susceptible young men with the intent to drain them of their blood and vitality. Structured around two entertaining tales – one taken from Philostratus’s biography “Life of Apollonius of Tyana” in which Apollonius warns his student Menippus that the younger man’s new girlfriend is something of a manhunter, the other being The Bride of Corinth – the film discusses the lamia, the stryx and the empousa. All three are described in their lurid monstrosity: the lamia appears to humans as a beautiful woman in its upper body but its lower body having the form of a snake; the strix is a foul-smelling nocturnal bat monster with a human head and a penchant for attacking sleeping children through open windows; and the empousa is a shapeshifting ghost who goes after young men.

While the film is certainly entertaining and the artwork featured is rich and gorgeous, there isn’t much information about the place of these monsters in Greek mythology: how they came to be, what their relation might have been to the Olympians, the Titans or other beings that populated the ancient Greek imagination, and what importance they held for the people who feared them. What remedies did ordinary people believe in to ward off these creatures and what important cultural values or morals were emphasised in the stories people told and passed on to others about these creatures? The lessons one could take from the tale of Apollonius and Menippus, and the story of the Bride of Corinth might include warnings that romantic love or lust is not a good basis for a long-lasting relationship and that marriage is much more than a union of two people.

The film is best viewed as an introduction to the ways in which ancient Greeks coped with and expressed the universal human fear and fascination with death, blood, menstruation and women’s ability to give birth, the connections among all of these – and how in both imagination and reality these connections can be explored by being turned into their polar opposites in the form of vampiric monsters.

Ancient Greek Buddhists: a vivid snapshot of ancient Greek and Indian cultural contacts

Garrett Ryan, “Ancient Greek Buddhists” (Toldinstone, 16 October 2021)

A very fascinating snapshot of a short period in ancient Central Asian and Indian subcontinent history, this video explores the cultural interactions between Hellenistic Greeks and parts of present-day Pakistan and northern India about two thousands years ago. The Hellenistic presence in the Middle East and Central Asia was a consequence of Alexander the Great’s conquests in the fourth century BCE: the Seleucid Empire, succeeding Alexander the Great, held large territories in western Asia and the kingdom of Bactria occupied territory in what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Indians themselves were not untouched by the Macedonian invasions: Alexander and his forces ranged over areas around the Indus River valley, leaving behind captured cities, defeated local kings and garrisons. For a long time afterwards, the Seleucids and the Bactrians bordered the Mauryan Empire in northwest India but after the Mauryan Empire fell in the early 2nd century BCE, the Bactrians invaded and conquered parts of northern India as far south as Gujarat and as far east as the Ganges River delta. Bactria ended up over-extended and split into two kingdoms, Bactria proper and the Indo-Greek kingdom

In India, the Greek Bactrian elites were impressed by Buddhism and converted to the religion; many of these people such as Menander I (reigned 165 or 155 – 130 BCE) of the Indo-Greek kingdom became Buddhist missionaries. As the video demonstrates in vivid stills of archaeological finds and sculptures, Greek Bactrian leaders and politicians established stupas and shrines, and their remains sometimes ended up in temples to be revered alongside images of the Buddha. After Bactria faded into the Parthian Empire and the Indo-Greek kingdom disintegrated after Menander I’s death, the Roman Empire became the major source of European contact with the Indian subcontinent through maritime trade. Indians or their products are known to have reached the Roman Empire: the film shows a picture of an Indian statuette found in the ruins of Pompeii.

Greeks and Romans in Europe seem to have been rather confused about the nature of Buddhism and its philosophies – even to the extent of mixing the religion up with Hinduism and Jainism – and Buddhism made no appreciable impact on Greek and Roman culture generally in spite of its attraction for the Indo-Greek elites. Hellenistic influence on Indian culture is demonstrated by the adoption of Greek sculptural techniques by Indian sculptors in creating free-standing, realistic human figures in draped Greek-styled clothes. It may be that the depiction of the Buddha as a human figure may have begun with the Indo-Greeks and that this form of portrayal spread wherever Buddhism went.

The short documentary is one of the most stunning and beautiful of the videos I have seen so far from the Toldinstone channel on Youtube. Dr Ryan’s narration is fast and viewers may have to run the film a few times to take in all the historical details. Unfortunately he has little to say about why the Indo-Greeks adopted Buddhism enthusiastically but seem to have stayed away from Hinduism, Jainism and other religions in the region. Aside from the material archaeological evidence of coins and our knowledge of Roman contacts with India, there is very little about the Indo-Greek economy. We can only know from what the material evidence tells us.

The Destruction of Laos: casting light on a shameful aspect of the Vietnam War

Carlton Meyer, “The Destruction of Laos” (Tales of the American Empire, 15 October 2021)

Many people know that the Vietnam War dragged Cambodia into its horrors – or rather, US State Secretary Henry Kissinger saw fit to drag Cambodia into the Vietnam War – but I confess to being unaware that Laos had also been dragged into the Vietnam War even though the fact that Cambodia was an unwilling participant made so by the US should have suggested to me that the US would treat Laos similarly. Here comes Carlton Meyer with his latest TofAE episode to cast light on a relatively little-known front of the Vietnam War: the US bombing of Laos. As Meyer notes, Laos in the early 1970s was a small country of some 3million yet the US saw fit to drop over 2 million tons of bombs in 580,000 bombing raids over 9 years from 1964 to 1973: that works out to one planeload of bombs being dropped onto Laos every 8 minutes! At the same time this was happening the US government denied it was bombing Laos or had US combat forces in the country.

After describing the scale of the bombing of Laos, Meyer goes on to detail how US forces and the CIA operated in the country. Combat forces worked as contractors for the CIA and trained and led Laotian and Chinese mercenaries in Laos. Many of these Americans supplemented their incomes by engaging in the opium trade. US denial of involvement in Laos meant that finding lost or missing US soldiers or pilots in the country was difficult or impossible, since that would force Washington to admit that the US did indeed have forces there.

Meyer rounds off his short documentary by explaining why the US invaded and brought the Vietnam War to Laos: the reason was to shut down the Ho Chi Minh supply trail that passed from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam. Meyer explains how the US attempt to cut off the supply trail was bound to fail as the Vietcong in South Vietnam had support from the general public there and could obtain supplies from myriad, mostly local sources, not just from North Vietnam. Ultimately it was the determination of the Vietnamese to reunite as an independent nation, free from Western domination (whether in the form of French colonialism or US neocolonialism), that was the major factor in Vietnam’s victory.

Meyer enlivens his short video documentary with archived film, maps and snippets of old 1970s interviews including one with a US refugee worker dealing with displaced Laotians who relays what the refugees told him about the relentless nature of the bombing and the total destruction it caused. This interview with the refugee worker, which concludes the film, conveys the absolute horror of what amounted to virtual firebombing of the country. What Meyer details is indeed an absolutely shameful episode in US military history.

Meyer probably could have noted the continuing legacy of the US bombing campaign in Laos: about 30% of the bombs dropped on Laos did not explode on impact but remain in many parts of the country and continue to maim and kill Laotians, children in particular.

Mren Cathedral and the Last World War of Antiquity: a building’s connection to the end of an era and the beginning of another

Garrett Ryan, “Mren Cathedral and the Last World War of Antiquity” (Toldinstone, 2018)

Part of a series about ten Roman / Byzantine-era buildings built in the territory of modern Turkey, this video initially focuses on Mren Cathedral, a 7th-century Armenian church in the abandoned site of Mren, once a town in the region of Kars in far north-eastern Turkey, and in particular on a stone at the cathedral’s entrance celebrating the return of the True Cross of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (reigned 610 – 641 CE). This stone not only establishes the age of Mren Cathedral – it was built during the 630s CE – but also tells us something about the involvement of Armenia as a state in the long border wars between the Roman Empire and its Byzantine imperial successor on the one hand and the Persians (whether Parthians or Sassanids) over several hundreds of years to the 630s CE. The stone and its inscription become the basis for an interesting story told by Ryan in voiceover narration of the war between the Byzantine Empire (which Ryan calls “Roman”) under Heraclius and the Sassanid Empire under Khosrau II (reigned 590 – 626 CE): as the title of the video bluntly states, this war was the last major war fought by two imperial powers of the Classical World just before the eruption of Arab armies inspired by Islam out of the Arabian Peninsula in the same decade that Mren Cathedral was built in Armenia.

Ryan sets the scene by explaining the role Armenia played as a buffer state between the Romans / Byzantines and the Parthians / Sassanids since Classical times. Both superpowers wooed and bribed Armenian princes and rulers to their side and the western and eastern borders of Armenia seem to have changed quite frequently over the centuries. Some time in 590 CE, in a fortress town in Armenia, the young Khosrau II, newly acceded to the Sassanid throne but usurped by rebels, sought refuge with the Byzantine commander; the Byzantines agree to help him regain his throne in Persia. For a decade afterwards, the Byzantines and Sassanids were on friendly terms and respected one another’s territories but with the assassination of Byzantine Emperor Maurice Tiberius in 602 CE, Khosrau II seized the opportunity to overrun Byzantine territories in Anatolia, the Levant and Egypt. The Byzantines under Emperor Phocas were unable to stop Khosrau II’s forces as their own armies were tied up battling Avars and Slavs coming into their European territories. Among the booty that the Persians captured in their conquests was the True Cross of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, reputedly the cross on which Jesus Christ died.

In 610 CE, Heraclius became Byzantine Emperor and spent the next decade rebuilding his treasury and army. In 622 CE, he set out to reconquer the territories lost to the Sassanids with the help of the Khazars (Turkic-speaking tribes who would later establish their kingdom on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea and convert to Judaism) and of Armenian and Georgian princes. Basing his army in Armenia itself, Heraclius achieved a series of stunning successes against three Persian field armies and entered Persia itself. Finally in 626 CE, at the Battle of Nineveh, Heraclius smashed Khosrau II’s army and Khosrau II ended up being executed by his own nobles.

As a result of Heraclius’s victory against Persia, the Sassanids gave up all the territories conquered by Khosrau II and Heraclius was able to return the True Cross to its Jerusalem home. On his way to Jerusalem from Persia, Heraclius passed through Armenia and one of the Armenian princes who had accompanied Heraclius on his campaigns in western Asia commissioned the Mren Cathedral to be built with the commemoration of the Byzantine Emperor’s restoration of the True Cross.

Ryan does not say very much about the fortunes of Mren Cathedral or of Armenia itself after Heraclius’s victory over the Sassanians, except to observe that with the passing of time and the shifting of trade routes through Armenia, the town of Mren became insignificant and was eventually abandoned. The few photos of the cathedral shown in the video, which is otherwise illustrated with colourful maps showing the campaigns of Heraclius and Khosrau II, show the building to be in a parlous state, neglected by the Turkish government. Grant might have said something about post-Ottoman Turkish government attitudes (especially those of the current government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) toward the Armenians and their buildings and monuments in eastern Turkey but then I guess he’d never be allowed back in Turkey.

The video concludes by observing that, while Mren Cathedral was being built in Armenia, Arab armies began conquering the Arabian Peninsula and spread into western Asia (claiming Syria) and thence into Persia, destroying what remained of Sassanian power. Under the Umayyads and Abbasids, and then later under the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, Islam would come to threaten the Byzantine Empire’s eastern territories just as the Zoroastrian Sassanians had done before them. Although Ryan does not say so, Heraclius’s victory over Khosrau II and Khosrau II’s execution surely created a vacuum within Sassanian politics that could be exploited by a new dynasty or by foreigners. Just as the World Wars of the West in the 20th century restructured Europe and changed the course and nature of Western civilisation, so too did the Last World War of Antiquity as Ryan calls it ended up changing civilisation in the Middle East and Persia – and would change the course of the Byzantine Empire in its later centuries.

The video is very entertaining if rather rushed in its narration with facts being thrown at viewers continuously right up to the end. Viewers may need to see it at least twice to absorb all the riveting information about Mren Cathedral’s connection to one of the most significant wars in the history of the world, one that would close off the Classical Era of Greek and Roman civilisation, and lead to the Mediaeval Era of Byzantine and early Islamic civilisation. There were some things though, that stayed the same: among them, Armenia would continue to be a buffer state between the Byzantines (and later the Ottomans) and the Persians, on whom the Armenians would end up relying for protection and much of their culture.

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