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” (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.

A Historical Tour of Hagia Sophia: a visually sumptuous guide and introduction to a famous building and Byzantine civilisation

Garrett Ryan, “A Historical Tour of Hagia Sophia” (Told in Stone, 2020 / 2021)

Even as a short film, this video tour of Hagia Sophia / Aya Sofya, the most famous site in Istanbul (the former Constantinople before 1453) and the pinnacle of Byzantine imperial civilisation as a place of religious worship, political life and artistic achievement, is a visually sumptuous affair. As usual with Dr Ryan’s short videos for his Told in Stone Youtube channel, he gives running commentary on the building’s history and the reason for its construction, and points out the most important parts of the building, its mosaics and the figures they portray, and the messages those mosaics may convey which demonstrate aspects of Byzantine belief and values.

As viewers might expect, Dr Ryan’s voiceover narration, while speedy, starts with a general survey of the building’s importance to the Byzantine Empire and the context in which Hagia Sophia was first conceived by Emperor Justinian I. The building replaced a church, itself a replacement for the original Hagia Sophia built in 360 CE, when that church was destroyed during the Nika revolts that started in the Hippodrome and quickly spread to the rest of Constantinople, burning or destroying most of the city and leaving 30,000 dead in the space of a week in early January, 532 CE. The building was completed in 537 CE.

From there, the video focuses on particular aspects of Hagia Sophia’s architecture. The building complex features a massive dome built on four spherical triangular pendentives (construction devices that allow a circular dome to be built over a square room) which curve into and support the dome, and spread its weight down into the rest of the building. Other features of interest are the exonarthex which houses the sarcophagus of Empress Irene; the narthex; the Vestibule of Warriors; the Imperial Gate which features a mosaic of Emperor Leo VI doing penance before Christ for marrying more than three times in his quest for a male heir; the galleries where the Empress and her court sat to observe Masses and participate in public life; and the Tomb of Henricus Dandolo, a Venetian doge who led the Fourth Crusade (which never went near the Holy Land but instead concentrated on pillaging Constantinople). Mosaics of interest include those of Empress Zoe (reigned 1028 – 1050 CE) and her third husband Constantine IX (reigned 1042 – 1050 CE) whose face appears to have been changed at least once, perhaps to replace the face of one of Zoe’s former husbands: this juicy piece of information is one of many that Ryan spices his commentary with in his usual disingenuously neutral tone.

Brimming with photos and film of Hagia Sophia’s interiors, all done from as many angles as possible, this video is incredibly immersive and viewers can feel something of the long, deep and rich history of the building complex, its architecture, paintings and mosaics. At the same time, details such as the mosaics of the penitent Leo VI and Constantine IX with his cosmetic surgery, and the graffiti left behind by a fellow called Halfdan, most likely a member of the Varangian bodyguard corps employed by Byzantine Emperors after Swedish Varangians began appearing in Constantinople, help to bring a very human and humorous dimension to Hagia Sophia’s long history.

There are some references to Hagia Sophia’s history after Constantinople’s downfall in 1453 when Mehmet II entered the building and declared it a mosque. After hundreds of years doing sterling duty, the mosque was declared a museum by Turkish President Kemal Ataturk in 1935. Beginning in the early 1990s, parts of Hagia Sophia were repurposed for use in Muslim religious worship and after the new millennium began, there came increasing calls for the building to be reconverted into a mosque. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Hagia Sophia a mosque in 2018.

The video serves as a good introduction to Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine civilisation it represents for tourists and students of classical Greek and Roman history. Those wanting more detail or information about Hagia Sophia’s post-Byzantine history will be disappointed with the sketchy details provided in the video and need to investigate other Youtube videos on the building complex.

Treachery by US Army Generals in World War II: how incompetence and bad decisions led to US defeat and Japanese occupation of the Philippines

Carlton Meyer, “Treachery by US Army Generals in World War II” (Tales of the American Empire, 1 October 2021)

While many people know that Japan dealt the British Empire its worst defeat in Singapore in February 1942, not many know that a few months afterwards in May 1942, Japan also defeated the United States in the Philippines after a five-month campaign (it began on 8 December 1941, just after Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbour in Hawaii) that led to 23,000 US soldiers and 100,000 Filipino soldiers dead or captured. Those captured ended up being shipped off to Japan in infamous “hell ships” (where they were crammed into cargo holds with little air, ventilation, food or water) to work as slave labour in factories or mines for as long as three years. Much of the blame for the disastrous US defeat can be laid upon the US Army generals in charge of the combined US / Filipino forces for their incompetent – and at times inexplicable – decisions that allowed much smaller Japanese forces to attack and lay waste US airfields and destroy valuable US aircraft and ships.

In this episode of his “Tales of the American Empire” series, Carlton Meyer concentrates on three examples of incompetent actions by US Army generals in the Philippines. In the early months of Japanese invasion of the Philippines after December 1941, General Douglas MacArthur withdrew US forces to Bataan Peninsula, allowing the Japanese to seize Manila which forced the colonial US government to retreat to the island of Corregidor. MacArthur’s withdrawal included the abandonment of Fort Wint on Grande Island at the entrance of Subic Bay. Japanese forces bombed Corregidor and after a long siege, starved and still waiting for reinforcements, US defenders surrendered to Japan. While Macarthur, Filipino leader Manuel Quezon and other high-ranking military officers and diplomats escaped capture and left the Philippines, others were not so lucky: at least 17 US Army generals became POWs.

One of the these officers was William F Sharp, in charge of the Visayan-Mandanao Force. Believing that Japan would execute US soldiers and other Americans captured in Corregidor, Sharp surrendered to the Japanese though many Americans and Filipinos under his command refused to give up and became guerrilla fighters. Another officer, Jonathan M Wainwright, had also surrendered in the belief that his action would minimise casualties and save hostages from being executed.

The actions of Wainwright and Sharp, to whom Wainwright transferred his command of all US and Filipino troops (at least until the Japanese insisted that all US and Filipino troops had to surrender, forcing Wainwright to pressure Sharp to surrender also), might be seen as being under duress, both generals perhaps not aware that the Japanese were not planning to execute their Corregidor hostages. The actions of MacArthur though, in following a pre-war plan to compel his troops to retreat to Bataan Peninsula, enabling the Japanese to capture Manila and Luzon Island and to cut off supplies to the Americans, beg for explanations as do also the actions of US President Franklin D Roosevelt in failing to send appropriate reinforcements to US forces in the Philippines. Why did MacArthur defer to a plan and not go on the attack against Japanese invaders? What do MacArthur’s failures and Washington’s disregard for US troops in the Philippines – never mind the Filipinos – say about US attitudes towards Japan, the Philippines and East Asia / Southeast Asia generally that might still be relevant to current US attitudes towards East Asia and China in particular?

Unfortunately Meyer’s narration, sticking to the chronology of the details of the US retreat to Bataan Peninsula and the actions of MacArthur, Wainwright and Sharp, does not dig into the motivations or reasoning of these men for making decisions that do not reflect well on their competence or ability as military leaders. What Meyer does though is tell a very well researched and detailed account of American error and Japanese determination and zeal, with plenty of archived film and photographs to flesh out the story.

The Bombing of Pompeii, 1943: detailed sketch of darkest episode in ancient Roman city’s history

Garrett Ryan, “The Bombing of Pompeii, 1943” (Told in Stone, 25 September 2021)

Not too many popular histories and documentaries on Pompeii and Herculaneum mention that over August and September in 1943 the Allied forces (primarily UK and Canada) dropped about 170 bombs over the archaeological site of Pompeii. Garrett Ryan’s short video gives a quick blow-by-blow sketch of what happened, starting with the reason why the bombing campaign was begun: US, UK and Canadian troops landed at Salerno near Naples, beginning in September 1943, but encountered resistance and counter-attacks from German forces along the coast so Allied bombing missions to cut German supply lines began dropping thousands of bombs. The archaeological site of Pompeii was close to railway yards and important transport links leading to Naples so bombs that were supposed to hit those sites landed in Pompeii instead.

Every part of the Pompeii site was bombed and a number of important historical locations in the site including the amphitheatre arena; the House of Sallust (an important Roman mansion) which held a life-sized fresco detailing the myth of the hunter Actaeon, punished by being turned into a deer and torn apart by his hounds for accidentally seeing the goddess Diana bathing in a pool; the House of the Faun which contains the famous mosaic of Alexander the Great defeating Persian shah Darius III at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331BCE; and the House of Trebius Valens, a modest building with significant graffiti on its walls that were destroyed by the bombing. The Antiquarium Museum, which housed thousands of artefacts from the sites and casts of victims of the Mt Vesuvius volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 CE, was also bombed and lost nearly 1,400 artefacts as a result. The Museum was restored but many items in its collection remain shattered.

After World War II, many of the destroyed buildings and locations in Pompeii were rebuilt or restored but much damage caused by the bombing is permanent and there are still unexploded bombs at the site.

Ryan passes no judgement on the Allied forces who bombed the Pompeii site. Some online digging by Yours Truly turned up information that the Allies believed that German forces were hiding in the site and storing ammunition there, and even the Allied Military Command fell for this belief. This is confirmed by another, much more detailed video presentation by Dr Ardle MacMahon in July 2021 about the Allied bombing of Pompeii. Both videos agree that British and Canadian forces were responsible for the most of the bombing. Contrary to most current popular opinion about differences between American and British cultures – in which Americans are seen as boorish and ignorant and British as refined and cultured – the British seem to have been much more viciously gung-ho about destroying other people’s cultures and heritage during World War II, as evidenced by the bombing of Dresden in February 1945 by UK-led forces.

Even in a short video as this, the visual presentation which features archived photographs of pre-WWII Pompeii and informative maps is stunning. Ryan’s rapid-fire voice-over narration packs in fact after fact after fact and the video needs a couple of viewings to be fully savoured. Possibly much more could have been said about the fragile nature of the Pompeii site: Mt Vesuvius is still an ever-present threat to the site’s survival as are also mass tourism and the continuing economic woes of Italy itself and the impact they make on the country’s ability to fund archaeological research and restoration projects.

How medicine and nursing became the accomplices of genocide in “Caring Corrupted: The Killing Nurses of The Third Reich”

James Bailey, “Caring Corrupted: The Killing Nurses of The Third Reich” (2017)

A grim and horrifying film, all the more so for its clinical, matter-of-fact tone driven mainly by interviews of researchers and Holocaust survivors, “Caring Corrupted …” explores and explains in much detail the role of the medical and nursing professions in killing physically and mentally handicapped adults and children in Nazi Germany (1933 – 1945) and participated in the Holocaust. The film uses voice-over narration and interviews to give a detailed chronological narrative in which a context of military defeat, political and economic chaos, and government inability to deal with the Great Depression and pay outstanding war debts to the Allied victors resulted in the rise of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists to power in Germany in 1933 and their subsequent control of German society and culture with widespread propaganda resulting in the mass brainwashing of people, and of medical professionals in particular.

Chillingly the film details the Western political / cultural context of the early 20th century, built on Western imperialist policies seeking to justify the genocide and enslavement of peoples in Africa and Asia in order to steal their lands and resources, in which prevailing political, economic and scientific ideas and ideologies combined in birthing scientific racism and eugenics. The film shows that the ideology of racial hygiene to justify selective breeding of humans and getting rid of people deemed racially or genetically inferior was widespread in Western societies from the 19th century onwards well into the 1970s, not just in Germany; indeed, much of the inspiration for pursuing racial hygiene policies in Nazi Germany came from the United States. The nature of German society in the late 19th / early 20th centuries with its emphasis on hierarchy, junior doctors and nurses deferring to more senior doctors and nurses, and women deferring to men provides another aspect to the context.

The film’s chronological narrative follows the development of involuntary euthanasia programs (known as Aktion T4 programs) for handicapped people and children in hospitals, and the ways in which doctors and nurses participated in those programs – the nurses often holding children while the children were overdosed with sedatives by other nurses on the orders of doctors or senior nurses – and how those euthanasia programs developed into larger institutional programs that herded Jewish, gypsy and other groups deemed racially inferior into concentration camps and systematically killed them with the participation of medical and nursing personnel, many of whom had previously worked in the euthanasia programs. In a number of concentration camps in Germany and Poland, horrific and sadistic medical experiments were carried out on inmates: all these experiments were overseen by Dr Josef Mengele and suggested either by him or other physicians. In all these experiments, doctors and nurses were involved in carrying out tasks that amounted to torture, mutilation and murder. After the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II in May 1945, a number of doctors and nurses were tried and convicted for war crimes and crimes of genocide but many of the institutions they worked in and carried out the euthanasia programs still continue as working hospitals.

Unfortunately many of the root causes and the political / economic / cultural context in which the euthanasia programs leading to the Holocaust arose still exist in societies around the world. As the film concludes, the factors that turned Germany, one of the most culturally advanced nations in the world in the early 20th century, still exist in most nations: they are often factors rooted in human psychology and especially in human social psychology.

The film has become more relevant in the current COVID-19 pandemic era as medical and nursing professionals, particularly those working in hospitals, come under pressure from governments to administer injections of experimental drugs with often severe side effects (including death) and short-lived benefits, and to deny patients more appropriate and safer (but less profitable for large pharmaceutical firms) treatments. General practitioners in many countries are also under pressure to administer jabs of purported vaccines to patients or face the threat of losing their licences to practise medicine. Widespread government propaganda about COVID-19 and its supposed threat to public health to justify lockdowns and abolishing civil liberties, and at the same time discriminate against people refusing injections of COVID-19 vaccines, eerily echoes the Nazi propaganda that demonised Jewish people, gypsies, Slavs and others considered racially inferior and unfit.

It is no longer just enough to learn about the Holocaust and the roles that the medical and nursing professions played in it; we must also learn how we can easily be manipulated and brainwashed by governments and corporations into hate and following their agendas.

Drug Use in Ancient Greece and Rome: a lively video on the use of narcotics and hallucinogens in classical society

Garrett Ryan, “Drug Use in Ancient Greece and Rome” (Told in Stone, 17 September 2021)

An intriguing little video, this episode in Garrett Ryan’s ongoing Told in Stone series that centres on classical civilisation explores what is known – and what is guessed at – about the use of narcotics, hallucinogens and other drugs by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The video starts with an investigation of a kurgan (burial mound) by archaeologists in Stavropol in southern Russia: among the treasures found were two golden vessels whose insides were coated with the remains of a sticky black residue. Analysis of the residue by a lab revealed the residue to be a mix of opium and marijuana. The kurgan had been built by Ancient Scythians, a nomadic horse-riding people well known to the Ancient Greeks: the golden vessels may have been made by the Greeks themselves and the Greeks may have even supplied the opium-marijuana mix since they knew the Scythians’ predilection for mind-altering substances.

This little story leads the way into a survey of the Greeks and Romans’ use of opium and hemp, and how much these substances were incorporated into their cultures. Not surprisingly, the ancients used opium as a medicine, primarily as a pain-killer, a relaxant and a soporific; mixed with honey, opium could be used to treat a range of health problems from skin infections to coughs. They appear not to have appreciated the addictive properties of opium but did know that overdoses of opium could be fatal. As with opium, cannabis had many medicinal uses though doctors tended to use the hemp seed and cannabis resin as medicines. Some evidence found in the grave of a Roman woman who died in childbirth suggests that the more potent leaves and buds were used to relieve labour pains.

The second half of the video investigates the use of opium and hallucinogenic drugs in Greek and Roman religious ritual. One might assume that opium, marijuana and hallucinogens were used in the Eleusinian mysteries and by the maenad followers of the Greek god Dionysios but no firm evidence that these cults included drug use has been found. Likewise, evidence for the use of opium, marijuana and others as recreational drugs by the Greeks and Romans is scanty. Indeed the use of substances for purely recreational mind-altering purposes seems to have been quite limited in Greek and Roman cultures.

The video limits itself to exploring how the Greeks and Romans used a small range of substances known to be addictive in modern Western societies on the basis of material evidence found so far. It does not say very much about what historians, playwrights and other commentators among the Greeks and Romans thought and wrote about these drugs, and how much. That the Greeks and Romans seem to have used opium and marijuana mainly as medicines and food items may indicate that these peoples put far less emphasis on individual hedonistic or escapist pleasures than modern Western societies do. The Greeks and Romans may have experienced fewer stresses in their lives and had more outlets for the release of individual and communal tensions, through religious festivals and mystery cults, than are allowed in contemporary societies.

Perhaps the fact that not much appears to be known about how the Greeks and Romans used drugs in ways that would be familiar to us says much more about how we Westerners view drugs like opium and marijuana and their use, than about what the Greeks and Romans thought about these substances and how they used them. If we could go back in time and ask these societies what plants, fungi or other foodstuffs they had that they might have used in ways we would recognise recreational drugs to be used, the Greeks and Romans would probably point us to herbs, seeds and other items we might not realise have psychoactive properties.

Illustrated with photographs and stills of Greek and Roman art, this video is lively and straightforward in its presentation.

The Lost Greek Cities of Central Asia: a lively and brisk introduction to ancient Greco-Bactrian kingdoms

Garrett Ryan, “The Lost Greek Cities of Central Asia” (Told in Stone, 4 September 2021)

In light of current events in Afghanistan, with the Taliban reasserting its governance of the country after nearly 20 years of US-led Western domination with its attendant violence and corruption, a look at a past period of ancient Central Asian history, spanning some 400 – 500 years from the time of Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE) to the reign of Kanishka (about 127 – 150 CE) of the Kushan Empire, might be in order. The reason is that during this period, in spite of Alexander the Great’s destruction of the Achaemenid Empire in Persia to establish his own mighty sprawling empire from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River, followed by its break-up among his generals, the area of Central Asia covering much of today’s Afghanistan along with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan received considerable cultural and political Greek influence, blended with elements from Anatolian, Persian and local cultures. This part of Central Asia was ruled by the Seleucid Empire, heir to Alexander the Great’s empire – the Seleucid dynasty was descended from Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander the Great’s generals – which relied on local leaders to defend the Seleucid Empire’s north-eastern border regions against the Tocharians and Xiong-nu farther north and east in the Eurasian steppe region. Over time these local leaders and their descendants declared their independence from the Seleucids, established their own kingdoms and maintained diplomatic relationships with the Mediterranean region and India farther south. These kingdoms maintained Greek / Hellenistic culture and the Greek language, and built cities with sophisticated urban cultures.

Ryan’s video is a very good introduction to a period of ancient history perhaps not well known to the general public: the video is a collage of photographs showing the ruins of past Greco-Bactrian cities and some of the archaeological artefacts found in these ruins, and colourful maps of Alexander the Great’s empire, the extent of the Hellenistic world in 281 BCE when the Seleucid Empire was at its height and the changing polities in Central Asia from Uzbekistan south to northern India over time. Ryan’s voice-over narration concentrates on facts: while it’s easy to follow, the brisk narration rarely pauses for breath as it bounds from the historical setting for the spread of Greek / Hellenistic culture across Central Asia to the founding of Ai Khanoum, its ethnic mix and culture; to the depredations of barbarian tribes who set themselves up as rulers and allowed the Greco-Bactrian cities and kingdoms to continue with their traditions; to the establishment of the Kushan Empire who patronised Buddhism and encouraged a unique mix of Greek / Hellenistic culture and cultural influences from India and China. For this reason, audiences might need to watch the video a few times to absorb as much of the information as they need to know.

Ryan goes into some detail as to why Greek / Hellenistic influence declined in Central Asia after the beginning of the first millennium CE: the decision of the Kushan Empire to replace Greek with Bactrian as its administrative language distanced the Greco-Bactrian cities from their cultural motherland, and the Greek-speaking communities (probably always small) in this part of the world lost their special status and gradually assimilated into the general population. Greece’s absorption into the Roman Empire and the rise of the Parthian Empire in Persia to rival Rome may have disrupted the Greco-Bactrian cities’ ties to their motherland. Influences from India and China, especially after the arrival of Buddhism, became stronger and more prominent in the mixed culture of the Kushan Empire.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the video comes in the last couple of minutes where the narration roams over the ruins of a number of ancient cities in remote parts of Afghanistan and viewers are treated to astonishing photographs of the lost cities among bare hills and mountains. Ryan laments that many ruined cities are being plundered by treasure hunters using bulldozers and other heavy equipment; the plundering robs the cities not only of the heritage that belongs to Afghanistan but also disrupts their layers of history that archaeologists need to date them and reconstruct the cities’ histories.

This period of ancient history, in which past Western conquest of Central Asia and part of Afghanistan was followed by centuries of cultural contacts and mixing with this part of the world being a crossroads between Europe and the Middle East on the one hand, and India and China on the other, and all cultures being treated equally, surely serves as a stark rebuke to recent Western arrogance and brutality in Afghanistan – and as a model to Russia, China, Iran and other nations surrounding Afghanistan to follow.

The Chaotic Fall of Kabul in 2021: demonstrating the failed propaganda and lies of the US empire

Carlton Meyer, “The Chaotic Fall of Kabul in 2021” (Tales of the American Empire, 20 August 2021)

Using past and current news videos of the US evacuations from Saigon (Vietnam) in 1975 and Kabul (Afghanistan) in 2021, this instalment in Carlton Meyer’s Tales of the American Empire compares these two momentous events in the decline and fall of the American Empire and uses them to demonstrate how the US government not only lies to its citizens but, in detailing the apparently disorganised and messy evacuations, also exposes the United States’ incompetence in not foreseeing events and planning for an orderly departure and that nation’s cold and brutal indifference to the fate of its citizens stranded in both countries, to say nothing of the fate of those local Vietnamese and Afghans who assisted the US in its wars and might have been (or be) accused of treachery. The film then lays out the context for the US occupation of Afghanistan in the wake of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers and other locations in the US on 11 September 2001. Those attacks provided the convenient excuse for the US to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban government in spite of the fact that none of the terrorists supposedly involved in the attacks were Afghanistan citizens; the only link was that Saudi terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was living in Afghanistan at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Meyer states that bin Laden had nothing to do with these attacks: he learned about these from local news media where he was living; and that bin Laden himself and the supposed existence of his organisation Al Qa’ida were a ruse for the US to pursue a War on Terror in Afghanistan and other nations in western Asia and northern Africa whose governments had been targeted for overthrow.

One significant feature of the film which Meyer could have emphasised more is the failure of US and other Western intelligence to ascertain that the Taliban had cut deals with sections of Afghanistan’s government and armed forces, and that Taliban overthrow of US puppet President Ashraf Ghani’s government would be swift: this failure is illustrated in US President Joe Biden’s press conference about a month before the fall of Kabul, in which Biden asserts that the collapse of Ghani’s government would not occur as the country’s armed forces were more than adequately staffed and equipped to fight and resist the Taliban, and that there would be no hurried evacuations from Afghanistan similar to those that occurred in Saigon in April 1975. This part of the film illustrates more than anything else that has been and is being written about the Biden government’s performance in the months leading up to the Taliban resurgence, that the entire apparatus of and surrounding the US government, including US intelligence and the most senior leaders of the nation’s armed forces, has utterly failed the US people in its ineptitude.

Funnily, while watching the film of the passenger jet moving down the runway at the Kabul airport, with all the people running alongside, that the film features early on, I had the impression that the crowds did not look all that desperate to clamber on board. It may very well be that the people (nearly all of whom were men) at the airport were aware of the momentous events taking place in Kabul, that the Western planes landing at the Hamid Karzai International Airport might well be the last such planes they would see; and that Western mainstream news media were imposing their own interpretations of the scenes at the airport onto the crowds and the country to insinuate that many Afghans were desperate to leave the country after Taliban victory. Even when backed into a corner, with all its lies and propaganda about Afghanistan and the failed 20-year war there, the West still needs to lie about its failures.

The American Retreat from Vietnam: an example of how the US is detached from reality and lies to its people

Carlton Meyer, “The American Retreat from Vietnam” (Tales of the American Empire, 2020)

In the wake of the American retreat from Afghanistan in August 2021, the apparent parallel collapse of the Afghanistan armed forces and the concomitant swift rise of the Taliban back to power in Kabul, this episode in Carlton Meyer’s ongoing series Tales of the American Empire is worth a watch for possible similarities between US loss in Afghanistan over 2020 – 2021 and US defeat in the Vietnam War in early 1975. Certainly images of the Chinook helicopter hovering over the US embassy in Kabul, similar to images of a Chinook hovering over the US embassy in Saigon in April 1975, cannot just be coincidental. As it turns out, there are many similarities and parallels indeed, so much so that not only does the question of whether the US learned anything at all from its Vietnam defeat arise but also the question of whatever good the US might have learned from that defeat was either worthwhile or wasted.

One obvious parallel is that just as the US threw money, equipment and weapons at the Afghanistan army, so it did the same at the South Vietnamese army from 1969 onwards, after Richard Nixon became US President as the second half of Meyer’s film details. The South Vietnamese army was much larger and better equipped with advanced military hardware than the Viet Cong. At the same time, morale and loyalty towards a corrupt government in Saigon within the South Vietnamese army were low, just as soldiers in the Afghanistan army were disloyal to the corrupt governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani in Kabul. South Vietnamese soldiers were apt to sell weapons and equipment to the Viet Cong secretly, just as their Afghan counterparts did more recently to the Taliban and their supporters. As well, in both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the armies were heavily dependent on US “advice” and communications: in both countries, once the advisors left, the armies collapsed. (This bodes ill for the armed forces in countries like Australia and others that coordinate their activities closely with US armed forces, to the extent that these other nations’ armies are unable to act on their own initiative.) In addition, senior generals in the South Vietnamese army were corrupt and amassed fortunes for themselves from US taxpayer money, and surely decades later their equivalents in the Afghan armed forces and the government did the same: news that Ashraf Ghani secretly fled Afghanistan by car with another four cars and a helicopter all filled with cash (and having to leave some money behind at Bagram airport) has been circulating on the Internet.

A second parallel is that just as sections of the US government knew that the Vietnam War was unwinnable as early as the early 1960s yet lied to the general public and continued to throw money and men into a giant black hole, so half a century later some elements in the US government must have also known that the war in Afghanistan was also unwinnable for the US yet allowed the lies to continue. A major difference may be that most politicians and the news media in the early 2000s were so divorced from reality that they persisted in pushing more trillions and more troops into the quagmire in Central Asia, even though they must have known (or at least their gut feeling must have known) that the war in Afghanistan could not be won and that sooner rather than later the US and its allies would have to leave the country in defeat and humiliation. Whether the general public in the US and the West generally in the early 2000s was as naive as it might have been in the 1960s and 1970s and accepted the lies and propaganda is another matter.

Whether South Vietnam was a safe place for its people to live in during its existence, I do not know, though the violence (especially violence against women and girls) that follows the establishment of US military bases in places as far-flung as Iraq, Japan and South Korea suggests that in Afghanistan during the US occupation from 2003 to 2021, the casual violence and brutality dished out by US and other Western troops to civilians in Afghanistan, collectively and individually, must have been considerable. The wailing of Western human rights organisations about what the Taliban might do to Afghan women and girls now that the movement has reasserted itself, when for the past 20 years most Afghan women and girls living outside Kabul and other major cities (they constitute about 75% of the country’s female population) experienced little of Western largesse and much of Western violence, is more than a little hypocritical.

By itself, Meyer’s film is a very informative introduction on the way the US prosecuted the war in Vietnam during Richard Nixon’s presidency, demonstrating how the US cause was a lost one due to its arrogance and failure to understand the Vietnamese people and their aspirations for independence. In light of the recent US defeat in Afghanistan, the film becomes a warning, a part of the ongoing narrative of US hubris, belief in American exceptionalism and over-dependence on technology and fire power.

The American Empire in Asia in the 1800s: an enthralling if disturbing story of US imperialism in east Asia and the western Pacific

Carlton Meyer, “The American Empire in Asia in the 1800s” (Tales of the American Empire, 9 July 2021)

This short history documentary is an excellent entry in Carlton Meyer’s Tales of the American Empire series and a great introduction to the history of American foreign policy during the 19th century for the general public. Meyer quickly dispels the notion that American imperialism began with US victory over the Spanish in the Spanish-American War in 1898 that led to US colonisation of Cuba and the Philippines, as is accepted by most US historians. Indeed the first US President George Washington is known to have referred to the new United States in the early 1780s as a “nascent empire” and even as early as 1778, David Ramsay, South Carolina’s delegate to the Continental Congress, wrote that the North American continent would be the foundation of an empire that would make the Roman empire and the Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great “sink into insignificance“. The early US empire got under way in the 1830s when US warships, on the pretext of protecting US merchant and whaling ships, attacked islands in eastern and southeast Asia whose inhabitants (Malays, Dayaks) had threatened such ships and killed some of their sailors. US warships became regular visitors to eastern Asia and China in particular, working with the British to protect British interests and later American opium interests in southern China. The visits of US warships under Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan in the 1850s, forcing the Japanese to westernise later in the 1870s, should be seen in the context of growing US imperial influence in the eastern Asian region.

Capitalising on local political disputes in the Samoan islands, the US Navy established a naval station in those islands, an action that brought the US into conflict with the German navy there. Disputes with the Germans and local Samoan political factions eventually led to the islands being parcelled among Germany and the US: those islands that came under American rule remain so to this day as American Samoa, the German part later passing through New Zealand rule and becoming independent Western Samoa in 1962, renamed Samoa in 1997.

These details plus others Meyer mentions show that the US acquired its various colonies not by accident or because of other nations’ predatory actions but deliberately to enable US elites to profit from seizing and exploiting other people’s lands and resources. This empire of direct US colonies may no longer exist in the form created in the late 19th / early 20th centuries but it continues in the global outreach and ambitions of the US Navy, as succinctly demonstrated in the US Navy advertisement that ends the short documentary.

Fascinating archival maps, photographs and film shorts illustrate the documentary and the riveting if disturbing tale it tells.