Feb 12, 2018

CKII: The Mercian Supremacy

I did a sort of stress-relieving project over the new year where I finished Bethesda games I hadn't gotten around to finishing, i.e. Skyrim, Fallout 4 and - finally! - Morrowind. With that out of the way, my next gaming project had to be another shot at Crusader Kings 2. With so many new DLCs and patches out, I figured I needed to get reacquainted with how it all works, especially now that Monks and Mystics promises to make playing in Catholic western Europe a little more interesting. I'm hoping I get the opportunity to be a crypto-Cathar or a demon worshipper!

As a faithful Tolkien fan, I'll be playing as Mercia from the 769 start, looking to recreate the Mercian Supremacy and make it last. In Tolkien's Middle-earth, Rohan (the Mark!) is basically Mercia with more horses. In Crusader Kings 2, Mercia in 769 is actually a fairly auspicious start; you have a decent realm and a strong king in Offa, and many of the neighboring counties and petty kingdoms start as your tributaries. The biggest problem is that the Iceling dynasty is absolutely tiny: it's just Offa and his family. So expanding the dynasty is very much a priority. Other early game goals are founding the kingdom of Mercia and instituting primogeniture. Later on, I plan to take a shot at the achievement for holding the kingdoms of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, which I hope to unify into the Mercian empire. Also, with the Conclave DLC in play, I'll be trying to advance the status of women in Mercia.

**

A historical figure, the real Offa was the greatest king of Mercia, perhaps best known for Offa's Dyke, which you sadly can't replicate in the game. Here, he was King Offa the Wise (769-810).


He was my starting character, and managed a longer reign than the real Offa. As you can see, he had two sons and eight daughters, and lived to the considerable age of eighty. Offa expanded the realm to Lindsay and usurped the duchies of York and Hwicce, and used the tribute money to lay down an excellent foundation for the Mercian economy. His daughters made advantageous marriages, some in France and Byzantium, some matrilineally to bring great warriors to Mercia. He earned his sobriquet from his dedication to learning, as I worked to collect enough cultural technology points to unlock primogeniture succession.

Realistically, I wasn't looking to achieve anything spectacular in Offa's reign. The Mercian start, with nearly all of the neighboring kingdoms starting as tributaries, is pretty darn good, and my goal was to build up the realm for the future and weather the storm:


We caught a huge break early in Offa's reign, when the petty kingdom of Essex surprisingly decided to become Waldensians. As a good Catholic, Offa obviously wasted no time before launching a holy war against the despicable heretics, adding the duchy of Essex to his titles and Essex and Middlesex to the royal demesne.

Soon enough, the Vikings showed up. The small raiding parties are only a nuisance, but then the Danes launched a prepared invasion against us. There were a lot of vikings, but luckily for us, not only could we call all of our tributaries into the war, but most other realms in the British Isles joined us as well. Maybe all of them don't like Mercia, but apparently they liked the prospect of a kingdom of Danish pagan vikings in their midst even less. We threw the unbelievers back into the North Sea.

**

The historical Offa's first son, Ecgfrith, only ruled for five months before passing away. In the game, Offa was succeded by his second son, King Eadsige I the Chaste (810-832), who reigned for over twenty years and added the Isle of Man to the realm.


Eadsige inherited his father's passion for learning, to such an extent that when he became king, he was a member of the Hermetic Society. This was my first experience with the secret societies introduced in Monks and Mystics, and to be honest, it was a bit underwhelming. As a Hermetic, you get occasional prompts to do a mission, which usually consists of exchanging money for secret knowledge points that advance you in the society. I found the events pretty repetitive and boring; apparently it's possible to get some useful artifacts as a hermeticist, but I never saw any of them.

**

Eadsige's son, King Eadsige II (832-842) was destined for a short reign, but there was one exploit I'm particularly proud of, and it took place on the Isle of Man. I wanted to set up a vassal merchant republic fairly early, so they'd have plenty of time to expand and make me lots of money. As a coastal one-county duchy, the Isle of Man is a great place for a vassal republic.


The problem was, I was holding the castle, when creating a republic requires handing the county title to the mayor holding the city. He was just some random lowborn dude, and I didn't want the glorious Manx Hansa to be run by House Random. But I can't just revoke his title for no reason, since that would constitute tyranny and make all my vassals hate me. What to do?

What I did was have my king pick the Intrigue focus and start spying on the hapless mayor. It soon became apparent that there was absolutely nothing to find, but of course I didn't let that stop me. In a surprisingly short amount of time (i.e. luckily), we managed to have him framed for treason, which meant I could arrest him and revoke his title with no protests. And now House Iceling runs a merchant republic on the Isle of Man.


Sorry, Mayor Random.

**

King Eadsige II died in suspicious circumstances only ten years into his reign, when his heir Éomer was less than a year old. After a fifteen-year regency, during which two civil wars broke out (which I barely won), King Éomer the Strange (842-909) took the throne. That's not a Tolkien reference, by the way; rather, Tolkien was making a Mercia reference: Eomer was supposedly the father of the Icel after whom the dynasty is named. I did, however, at this point decide to start taking some liberties with the names of my character's children, especially since Éomer, like his great-grandfather, had so many of them.


They were lucky children, too, because Éomer was spectacularly succesful at expanding the realm, with the very competent help of his Irish chancellor, Cronan, a master at forging claims. Éomer seized Wessex and handed it to his son Wulfhere; we made inroads into Wales by conquering the duchy of Powys and Perfeddwlad, the latter going to Éomer's son Grimbold. We were even able to secure a foothold in Ireland by capturing Dublin, which went to Grimbold's twin brother Helm. Cronan was rewarded for his efforts by a matrilineal marriage into my dynasty, and after we subjugated Kent, his son Sæxbald was made Earl of Surrey.

Other children made succesful marriages abroad, none more so than Accolon, who married the Queen of Italy. She passed away fairly soon afterwards, but not before they produced several Iceling children; she was succeeded to the throne by Éomer, the first Iceling king of Italy. On the queen's death, Accolon returned to Mercia to head the merchant republic of Man and serve as his father's spymaster.

Annexing Wessex brought enough English land under our rule for Éomer to crown himself King of England. To my great surprise, our northern neighbors agreed to swear fealty to him: not just our old rivals, the kings of Northumbria, but lords all the way north to Teviotdale. This gave us a foothold in Scotland, and with the Pictish kingdom wracked by a civil war and fighting off viking invaders, we grabbed Lothian and had to reach out to the next generation, appointing one of Éomer's grandsons the Duke of Lothian.

Éomer also continued his predecessors' work on improving the demesne, with excellent results. Since I have the Reaper's Due DLC, our demesne provinces were able to keep accumulating prosperity even as we fought wars on our borders, and we were getting some pretty decent taxes from our merchant republic. Éomer built a new castle in Leicester, founded a city in Northampton, and even managed to trigger the event for adding a new holding slot in Leicester. Also, Éomer advanced the status of women in Mercia from Traditional to Marginal.

The one cloud on this excellently succesful horizon was the vikings. On the continent, Charlemagne's legacy had collapsed into something like half a dozen kingdoms, and at some point (I wasn't really paying attention), the vikings had conquered Germamy. I only really noticed this when they conquered a couple of independent provinces in England with worryingly large armies. Luckily, those provinces later rebelled and threw off the heathen yoke, but the prospect of an invasion from Germany became alarmingly real.

However, this also meant that Germanic pagans were holding Cologne, one of the holy sites of Catholicism, in the year 900. Therefore:


Crusades are a wonderful thing: not only do you have a chance to secure a kingdom title, but every character who commands troops in the de jure kingdom that is the crusade's target gets the Crusader trait, which gives +15 opinion with anyone else who also has it. Therefore, a Crusade is a great opportunity to make your realm run smoother: go yourself, bring your heir and try to rotate every powerful vassal in, especially if they're young, so that everybody has the Crusader trait. It's amazingly useful if a young Crusader heir succeeds.

Seeing as how Éomer was already going on sixty and had gone mad from studying the stars - hence the sobriquet - I was determined to make the most of this opportunity. Éomer, his heir and even his heir's heir, and all his dukes, came away Crusaders. Even though the Mercian army was the one to capture Cologne, the kingdom of Germany went to the Queen of Burgundy, Swanahild the Daughter of Satan. I question this decision! But at least the immediate pagan threat was gone. King Éomer died at the age of 67, having been king for basically his entire life. He left a much larger realm than he inherited.

**

Unfortunately, his son, King Mordred the Lawgiver (909-932), would find that not even crusader traits help much if your dukes are hell-bent on being complete assholes. Mordred earned his nickname by having a witch burned, but his vassals weren't too keen on having laws given to them. I lost a civil war to increase council power, which I can live with but is annoying. Some Crusader solidarity!


Before the first civil war, Mordred had conquered Clydesdale and Kildare, taking us one step closer to the crowns of Scotland and Ireland, and the annexation of Cornwall let him crown himself King of Wales. After the civil war, I forswore expansion and gathered a war chest for when the bastards tried again, and when they did, our mercenaries crushed them. The rebel Duke of Kent died in my dungeon before I could even decide what to do with him.

Eventually the dukes calmed down, and with Mordred still sitting on a sufficient war chest to kick their ass if they act up, we could resume building the empire. I can't fucking wait to be emperor and delegate all this squabbling to my vassal kings. Here's what the British Isles looked like when Mordred passed away:


Scotland is still in chaos. One of my vassals is trying to seize Carrick from the King of Scotland, and if he succeeds, we're a stone's throw away from usurping the Scottish crown. Ireland is also within reach; we'll start working on a Mercian Ulster. This means I also need to start saving money, because founding a custom empire costs 1000 gold. If I get my hands on the four crowns, I could just form the empire of Britannia, but where's the fun in that?

So far, the game has gone very well! The civil wars in Mordred's reign have been the lowest point, but he recovered. I'm particularly pleased that we've managed to build a fairly stable realm based on primogeniture, while the Karling legacy on the continent keeps falling apart again and again.

**

Back what seems an eternity ago, when Mordred came of age, it transpired he'd fathered a bastard with a maid or something. His father, King Éomer, packed him off to be Baron of Southwell, and made him legitimize the kid. That child grew up to be King Genobaud (932-932).


Also, a satanist. I was somewhat startled after his succession when I got a prompt that said he was alarmed that a fellow devil worshipper was caught! It was the first I heard of this.


Now that I found my side chosen for me, I decided to roll with it and do a satanic ritual to get a demon to possess the Duke of Wessex.


It worked, too! Whether coincidentally or not, Genobaud passed away soon afterwards, having reigned for barely a year. But I did say I hope I get to play as a devil-worshipper, and so I did.

**

Genobaud was succeeded by his possessed son, King Gedalbert the Cruel (932-971), who came to the throne as a minor. What I can only presume were his late father's activities resulted in some interesting childhood experiences.


After young Gedalbert acquired a character modifier called Voice of Satan, I have to admit I wasn't all that surprised when his vassals decided to rebel. They were handily defeated with the aid of Mordred's war chest, but if I'm honest, I'm not sure how well my dukes are going to acclimatize to being ruled by a demon-possessed king. Because stuff like this keeps happening:


To top it all off, shortly after his marriage, Gedalbert discovered he's gay. I'll admit: at that point, things didn't look great. However, the realm was in decent shape, we had a pretty good income, and an opportunity came along: presumably since the previous crusade went so well, the pope called a new one for Jerusalem. Obviously as a gay demon-possessed king, I participated.


It went surprisingly well!


So well, in fact, that we won, making catholicism 2-0 on crusades, and demon king Gedalbert became King of Jerusalem, Voice of Satan and all.


Since literally every single holding in the Kingdom of Jerusalem was now mine, the dynasty-building work done by Gedalbert's predecessors came in damn handy as I scoured the realm for Iceling men to give out the counties and duchies to. I barely found enough to be able to leave our newest kingdom to its own devices for a while. At this point, I had no idea what the life expectancy of the Kingdom of Jerusalem would be, and briefly considered giving it away to a relative, but if I could get at least some tax money out of it to finance my wars in Britain, I figured I was winning. So I stayed King of Jerusalem.

Speaking of the British Isles, Gedalbert's chancellor brought off a real coup when he forged a claim to the duchy of Ulster. A short war later, I was able to create the Kingdom of Ireland. Now only Scotland remained, and Scotland was a mess. Several families had claims on the crown and kept fighting for it; at one point there was a Scandinavian invasion, and even the Manx merchant republic grabbed itself a piece of Scotland. I managed to forge some claims and press others, but with the crown itself constantly under contention, we had to wait to usurp it.

In the meanwhile, a miracle happened.


After I picked the Theology focus for Gedalbert, to try to get rid of at least some mortal sins, I got a random event where a priest offered to exorcize my character. I agreed, but unfortunately nothing happened. The second time, though, the exorcism was a success! The Possessed trait and the Voice of Satan were gone, Leviathan stopped whispering from the fish course, and Gedalbert stopped developing new predilections for heresies or mortal sins. Best of all, he got to keep his military advice from Jesus; a staggering +20 Martial.

Now that he was demon-free, it was an easier task to get the council to approve an improvement in the status of women. Now we should be able to appoint women who are either landed vassals, relatives of the ruler or nuns to serve as spymaster, chancellor or steward on the council, which broadens the talent pool quite a bit.


After all this, there was finally a moment when one of the pretenders to the Scottish crown managed to grab it and be at peace - just long enough for me to usurp their title. And so, on February 13, 971, Gedalbert, King of Mercia, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Jerusalem, crowned himself Emperor of Mercia. That's an even bigger Mercian Supremacy than I was aiming for, so I'll take it!

Here's the first Emperor of Mercia, in all his post-demonic glory.


You'll notice that despite declaring himself gay, Gedalbert was strongly motivated to continue the dynasty, fathering ten children. Sadly, six of them died, most in childhood and of diseases, but I'm hoping at least someone will survive to inherit the throne.

Here's the Mercian Empire on the British Isles, or should that be Mercian Isles?


**

So, we went from the duchy of Mercia to an empire dominating the British Isles in just over 200 years. How? Mostly the slow, costly, old-fashioned way: forging and pressing claims. I did once nearly succeed in uniting the Mercian and Scottish crowns by marriage, but the other side broke the betrothal. So mostly it was a case of forging enough claims to flip a duchy, and flipping enough duchies to take a kingdom.

For those of you who are new to this, that means spending some quality time with the de jure duchies and kingdoms maps, figuring out the optimal path to your goal. It also means money and capable chancellors. Of the latter, I found several through the character search, as well as my best commanders and other specialists. If you matrilineally marry them to women of your dynasty, they'll hopefully produce some capable children as well; the first Mercian earls of Somerset, father and son, served the realm excellently as stewards, while the dukes of York are descended from one of Offa's Khazar commanders.

Also, never neglect your war chest. It is such a relief to have vassal kings to insulate you from the constant squabbles and factions of the dukes. Until you do, you need money on hand: they're only going to rebel when they have more troops than you, and you need mercenaries to make up the difference. Later, the same will be true of the kings. A big reason I've done so well with Mercia is because we had a pretty good income from the beginning with the various tributaries, a lot of which I invested in my demesne. Especially in the earlier starts, you have to invest in the future.

**

Now that I've achieved what I set out to do, what's next for the Empire of Mercia? Here's what Europe looks like in 971:


Looking at how the Iceling kings of Italy are carving up North Africa, and judging from both a failed jihad against Byzantium and the continuing existence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Muslim world is in some disarray. So, given that we have a pretty strong foothold in the Middle East, there might be some potential there. Then again, I could also try to get in on the Reconquista, if only to stop Acquitaine from grabbing all of Spain. Scandinavia also looks promisingly fragmented... I don't know! We'll see how long Jesus keeps giving Gedalbert military advice, and where that takes us.

Feb 5, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 41: The Breaking of the Fellowship

Aragorn led them to the right arm of the River.

The Fellowship camps out at Parth Galen, a lawn on the shores of the River. In the night, the edges of Sting glow faintly, meaning orcs are somewhere nearby. On the next day, the Fellowship can no longer postpone their decision: they must choose where to go next. Boromir will head west to Gondor (although if you look at the map, it's southeast; presumably Aragorn, who says this, means the west bank of the river), but should the rest of the Fellowship accompany him, or should they head east, to Mordor, or break up and each go their separate ways? As Ringbearer, it falls on Frodo to make his choice. He asks for a moment alone, and steps away into the woods at the foot of Amon Hen next to them.

Frodo wanders up the hill, which is dotted with old ruins. He sits for a while, thinking, until he finds that Boromir has followed him. Boromir tries to persuade Frodo that the Ring has to be used, not thrown away like "these elves and half-elves and wizards" think; the true Men of Gondor would not be corrupted. Frodo refuses, and as Boromir tries to lay his hands on Frodo, he puts the Ring on and vanishes.

Boromir falls, and realizing what he's done, calls out to Frodo. The hobbit is already gone, though: Frodo is running up the hill and soon reaches the summit. There he finds a high stone seat, the Seat of Seeing that the hill itself is named for. True to its name, he sees a whole lot of stuff, from Mirkwood to the Sea. To the south are the white walls and towers of Minas Tirith, but from there, his eye is inexorably drawn east, to Mordor, where Sauron perceives him. Frodo feels Sauron's gaze looking for him, and throws himself off the high seat. Frodo is torn, terrified by the Eye and at the same time drawn to it. He also hears a voice, imploring him to take off the Ring. For a moment, Frodo is balanced between the Eye and the Voice, until suddenly he is free to choose, and takes off the Ring.

As Frodo finds himself back on the hilltop, his decision is clear: he must go to Mordor and go alone, before the Ring corrupts more of the Company. He hears cries from the wood below, and puts the Ring back on as he heads for the boats.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Fellowship have been talking at the riverside. Legolas suggests they take a vote, and votes for Minas Tirith. Gimli agrees, but adds that he would not leave Frodo. Aragorn suggests that not everyone should go east with Frodo: at least Merry and Pippin should go with Boromir, but they absolutely refuse. Sam makes an intervention, and states that none of the others understand Frodo at all: he isn't debating where to go, he's gathering the courage to say they're going east, and also that he wants to go alone.

Just as they've decided to call Frodo back, Boromir returns. Upon being questioned, he reports he spoke to Frodo, and he put the Ring on and fled. The rest of the Fellowship has a fit and runs off into the woods, shouting for Frodo. Aragorn completely fails to restore order, and entreats Boromir to watch over the young hobbits. He himself runs after Sam, heading for the hilltop.

As in the conversation by the river, so now Sam is the only one who uses his head. Aragorn soon overtakes him, and Sam realizes that Frodo needs a boat to cross the river. He heads back to the boats, and sees one of them heading into the water all by itself. Sam leaps into the water after it and has to be rescued by Frodo. They then cross the River and head east, for Mordor.

**

True to its title, this is the chapter where the Fellowship falls apart; quite literally, when most of them panic and run off into the woods to find Frodo. Like I said earlier, there's no indication that Gandalf had any plan beyond Moria and possibly traveling down the River, and no-one really seems to know what to do next.

Well, okay, Boromir does. I like his dismissive attitude to "elves and half-elves", because he's hitting back at Elrond's racism. In general, Boromir lays out the case for using the Ring - and the corruption of the Ring - very well: the Ring would make him the greatest commander in the world, and with its power he would overthrow Mordor and set himself up as king. Boromir would be no Cincinnatus, nor does he even claim he would be: he wants Power. Again, if this was Harry Potter and the Ring of Power, the objection would be that Boromir is just the wrong person to use the Ring. In Tolkien's world, everyone is the wrong person.

I only started reading Christopher Tolkien's History of the Lord of the Rings when I was already well into this series of posts, and I haven't really referred to it much because I want these posts to focus on the text itself rather than its composition or history. Here, though, I do want to point out that J.R.R. Tolkien at one point planned for Boromir to survive the breaking of the Fellowship and head to Gondor with Aragorn. At this point, Boromir was the son of the king of Gondor -
the idea of Denethor as steward was yet to come - and when the king died in battle, Aragorn would be chosen as his successor and Boromir would defect to Saruman (The Treason of Isengard, HarperCollins 2002, pp. 210-211, 330). Maybe the most interesting thing I've learned from the History is how few of what we now think of as the basic facts of Middle-earth existed when Tolkien started writing, and how late some of them showed up.

Finally, a theological inquiry. Back when I was talking about Chapter 2 of the first book, I made the point that in my opinion, Tom Shippey is wrong when he posits that there are two contradictory theories of evil in the Lord of the Rings: evil as an external force and evil as internal corruption or sin. In fact, these two aren't contradictory at all, and in my mind, the best way to illustrate this is to look very closely at what happens to Frodo on Amon Hen.

When Frodo is caught between the Eye and the Voice on the high seat, he initially can't tell what he himself is saying: is he rejecting Sauron or promising to come to him? He's then very graphically described as "writhing" between the two points of power, namely Sauron and - at least judging from the fact that the Voice calls Frodo a "fool" - Gandalf. Suddenly, though, there's a moment when Frodo can choose for himself, and he takes the Ring off, dispelling the conflict.

If you follow Shippey in wanting evil to be either internal or external, this is all very contradictory. I maintain that this is an absolutely key scene in the book for understanding that for Tolkien, as a Christian, evil is both. Clearly Sauron is an external evil working on Frodo. Even though Frodo passionately wants to resist him, he's not sure he can. Even with Gandalf on his side, he still can't bring himself to reject Sauron. In theological terms, this is because Frodo is fallen: he simply can't reject evil on his own, because to be able to do so would be Pelagianism, a heresy. It's only in a single exceptional moment that Frodo gains the ability to choose. That moment is grace: it is literally God, Eru, reaching down and allowing Frodo to transcend his fallen nature for a split second, and choose. Only God can do this; fallen beings can't transcend the Fall on their own, but only with a divine assist.

So yes, Sauron is certainly an external, active evil who can be resisted, but ultimately, the internal evil of the Fall means that no-one can ultimately defeat evil through their will alone. Boromir was the first of the Company to be corrupted, but Frodo is probably right to think that he wouldn't have been the last - or indeed that Gondor would be no refuge. The message of Amon Hen is that in the end, only divine intervention will save fallen creatures from evil.

**

Whew. This chapter concludes Book Two of the Lord of the Rings, and the first volume: the Fellowship of the Ring. In the first book, Frodo and his hobbit pals traveled with the Ring, but in the second, they got the whole Fellowship, which started tying the story into the broader picture of Middle-earth: dwarves, elves, Gondor - and Mordor. Now the Fellowship is broken, with Frodo and Sam going their own way and everyone else left to fend for themselves.

Next time: the Two Towers.

Jan 22, 2018

The Forever War

The Forever War is a great novel by Joe Haldeman, but it's also what several national security professionals have come to call either the US war in Afghanistan, or the "war on terror" in general. And for good reason: the US went to war with the Taleban on October 7 2001, almost seventeen years ago as I write this. Depending on which casualty estimates you want, tens to hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. President Trump has escalated the war, increasing air strikes and sending in more troops. With no clear strategy, there's no end in sight.

The other forever war is in the Middle East proper, and it's been going on a lot longer than the War on Terror. Now that US foreign secretary, oligarch Rex Tillerson seemed to commit US forces indefinitely to Syria, it seems like it would be a good idea to look back on how long the US has been fighting in the Middle East.

**

A century ago, the Middle East, with the exception of what is now Iran, was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. The Empire took the side of the Central Powers in World War I, and collapsed at the end of the war. The Allies had made contradictory promises to the Arab and Jewish subjects of the Empire during the war, and eventuallu decided to take over the Empire's territories in the Middle East as colonial protectorates. Eventually these protectorates gained their independence, leading to the map of the Middle East that we know today.

As British and French influence declined, the Americans stepped in. Saudi Arabia actively cultivated ties with the United States, and during World War II, the Americans came to believe that Saudi oil was of vital strategic importance. There has been a US military presence in Saudi Arabia ever since.

During the Cold War, the Middle East was a battleground for US and Soviet interests, with the Americans supporting Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Shah of Iran, and the Soviets backing Arab socialism in Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Neither side prevailed: Israel was never destroyed but didn't rout its opponents, and the incredibly bloody Iran-Iraq war ended indecisively. No one state or superpower could control the region.

In 1990, with the Cold War coming to a close, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded the tiny neighboring emirate of Kuwait. A US-led alliance kicked him out the next year, with coalition ground forces crossing the Saudi border on February 24. The poorly led and motivated Iraqi conscript forces were swept aside with ease, and Kuwait was restored.

Saddam, however, stayed in power. To stop him from oppressing Iraq's Shi'ite and Kurd minorities, no-fly zones were set up in north and south Iraq, monitored by US, British and French aircraft, the French later withdrawing. These no-fly zones were enforced until the 2003 invasion of Iraq, accompanied by cruise missile strikes in 1993 and 1996, and a sustained four-day bombing campaign in 1998.

So by the time the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, the US military had been operating in Iraq non-stop for twelve years already. As we know, the US-led invasion of 2003 led to the death of Saddam Hussein and the collapse of the Iraqi state, ushering in a thoroughly unstable situation where a US-supported regime is faced with a massive insurgency. Militarily, the invasion was a success; the decision to destroy the Iraqi state without any kind of realistic nation-building strategy to replace it was a disaster. American combat troops stayed in the country until 2011, when they declared "mission accomplished" and withdrew, marking 20 years of continuous operations in Iraq. The insurgency simply continued as before.

2011 was also the year of the Arab Spring: regimes were overthrown in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, protests crushed with Saudi help in Bahrain, and Libya collapsed into civil war. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad tried to suppress protests with force, triggering the Syrian civil war. A Sunni extremist group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took advantage of the US withdrawal from Iraq to launch a full-scale offensive on the Iraqi government, and also became a participant in the Syrian Civil War. The Americans are intervening in the still-ongoing Syrian Civil War, along with the Russians and the Turks, and returned to Iraq in 2014. Meanwhile, a civil war also broke out in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is carrying out air strikes to support one side. And I haven't even mentioned Israel's continuing occupation of Palestine and its ongoing violence.

So from the 1991 Gulf war to several wars still being fought in 2018, the Middle East is nearing a full thirty years of war.

**

To put all this into some kind of context, I see two major developments. First, obviously, the Arab spring exposed the unusustainability of the Cold War order. Arab socialism had atrophied into venal despotism, and with money and military aid no longer pouring in from competing superpowers, the edifices began to collapse.

Secondly, the US destruction of Iraq shattered the geopolitical balance of the Middle East. In the short term, it created the power vacuum in which ISIS was born. In the longer term, the region will be looking for a new power balance. Iran is expanding its influence, but its capabilities are being massively overhyped. Iran is not an expansionist power outside the fever dreams of American islamophobes.

Saudi Arabia, however, is taking a very different approach, which Wikipedia is already calling the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict. The Saudi intervention in Yemen and the diplomatic offensive on Qatar are the most visible tips of this iceberg, but the Saudis' growing rapprochement with Israel and their bizarre orb ceremonies with Egypt and Trump certainly make it look like Saudi Arabia intends to flex its muscles. This is the essential background to the war drums being beaten against Iran in so many places today.

In the longer run, what we're seeing is the realignment of the Middle East from a superpower battleground to an area under a US quasicolonial hegemony. The extent of the conflicts, and the number of the dead, will depend on how far the US and its allies push their advantage. A war on Iran would be the ultimate exercise in remaking the whole Middle East, which is the only actual rationale of such a war. It's particularly absurd that such a pivotal time in the history of the region is being presided over by Donald Trump, a true idiot in the classical sense: completely ignorant and seemingly unable to hold a foreign policy opinion for as long as a week, but given to random, blustering fits of childish rage. It verges on impossible to decipher whether the US actually has some kind of strategy for the Middle East, let alone what it could be. Simply because he is president, Trump's idiocy and unpredictability make every global crisis more dangerous.

In retrospect, it's difficult to overstate how catastrophically bad the US decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan without a proper exit strategy was. There's a ton of strategic literature by various American thinkers and pundits penned after Vietnam on how the US must never again be drawn into such a quagmire again, but it was all a waste of time, because American combat troops have been in Afghanistan for twice as long as they ever spent in Vietnam, and they show no signs of getting out. Whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, there are no signs that the Americans have any kind of credible strategy for resolving the conflicts they have become involved in, let alone the ones they started.

The only thing that seems certain is that the forever war shows no signs of ending.

Jan 1, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 40: The Great River

Frodo was roused by Sam.

The Fellowship drifts down the Great River. On their left, the Brown Lands stretch out; on the right, grass grows between the river and the Misty Mountains. They all gradually become more uneasy as they float through the barren landscape, with Boromir muttering to himself and occasionally glaring at Frodo. He's not the only problem, either: Gollum has found the Fellowship's trail again.

Soon the landscape starts becoming steeper and rockier: the Fellowship is approaching the rapids of Sarn Gebir. Traveling by night, they almost ends up in the rapids, and gets shot at by orcs before they make it to safety on the western shore.

Ashore, Sam tries to work out how long they spent in Lórien, because by his reckoning, the moon was the same when they left as when they arrived, but he remembers spending several days there. There is debate on the nature of time and its passage in Lórien, and Aragorn maintains an entire month passed outside while the Fellowship spent maybe a week inside.

Boromir argues that the Fellowship should abandon their boats and head for Gondor, but no-one agrees with him. Instead they portage the boats and their supplies past the rapids, and carry on downstream. The river narrows into a gorge, which takes them past the pillars of Argonath: stone statues of Aragorn's ancestors, the brothers Isildur and Anárion. Aragorn is delighted to see them and return to his kingdom - and torn by his responsibility to Frodo in Gandalf's absence.

Beyond the Pillars is Nen Hithoel, a long lake beyond which lie the falls of Rauros. To the south stands the peak of Tol Brandir, with two tall hilltops below it: Amon Hen and Amon Lhaw, the Hills of Sight and Hearing. Here the Fellowship stops. The falls are impassable, and a decision has to be made: where do they go next?

**

This chapter is another excellent Tolkien travelogue, and one of my favorites - which probably explains my improbable liking for the Hills of Emyn Muil quest in the Lord of the Rings living card game. But I continue to maintain that travel and geography are Tolkien's strengths, and they're on display here in the parallel journey from the desolate Brown Lands to the northern reaches of Gondor, and from uncertainty to decision. The pillars of Argonath bring history into geography, and connect the Fellowship and especially Aragorn to the land around them.

The conversation on time in Lórien pretty much seals its status as Faerie: we've hit most of the other tropes, and now we also get accelerated time.

Other than that, though, we're still busy building up to the end of the book and volume. Next time: decisions.

Dec 26, 2017

Tenth anniversary

I can't believe I've had this blog for ten years.

It just seems like such a ridiculous amount of time. Of course, some things have happened. Back in 2007, I had a job occasionally writing things for a Finnish defence magazine, but that was kinda it; my studies at university had ground to a halt, and I had pretty much dropped out of everything. I barely even remember anything I was doing in 2007 or 2008 - likely because I was in the grip of a fairly serious depression and wasn't actually doing much of anything. As I've said before, I decided to start a blog to stay in practice with writing English, and it's served that purpose excellently by giving me something to do that felt at least a little bit meaningful. Since 2013, I've been running my Let's Read Tolkien series, which will keep on going for several years more.

In a sense, I've come full circle in these ten years, because earlier this month, I learned that I've once again failed to secure any funding for my PhD, and my attempt at an academic career is now pretty much over. So ten years ago, I started writing a blog because I didn't really have a whole lot else to do. Now, I'm in a depressingly similar situation, because I don't really know what to do with myself.

Keep on blogging about Tolkien, I suppose.

Dec 11, 2017

Cities: Skyrim and the Mass Transit DLC

Last time, I was building freeways and wondering about the rise and fall of commercial zones in Cities: Skylines.

I've taken to using a couple of mods: All Spaces Unlockable does just that, with costs scaling up as you unlock more map squares, and Infinite Oil & Ore Redux, which makes the ore and oil industries a reasonable proposition. The latter was since rendered obsolete by a mod bundled with the game itself, but All Spaces Unlockable is definitely worth it.

I also wanted my city to look a bit more diverse, so I trawled through the Steam workshop looking for more vehicles and growable buildings. I especially wanted more delivery vehicles; donut vans are all well and good, but too many of them start to look a little ridiculous. In case anyone's interested, I put together a collection of assets on Steam that includes all the vehicles and buildings I use. They all work, and as far as I can tell, they haven't slowed my laptop down at all.

Finally, I also tried a couple of custom maps. There's one of Tamriel that's kinda fun, but I really enjoyed this map of Skyrim, so that's definitely one I'd recommend.

**

Since I last blogged about Cities: Skylines, the Mass Transit DLC came out. So far, it's the only DLC I've bought, because come on, mass transit. In practice, it's kind of a mixed bag.

To start with the bad, most of the exchange hubs are nuts. The ferry-bus exchange has a regular ferry pier and like ten bus platforms. Same with the monorail-bus exchange, which is also huge. We finally got multi-platform train stations - with platforms for six sets of double track. Six. Who has six sets of tracks? Multi-platform subway stations though? Not included.

Frankly, the only useful transit hub is the metro-monorail-train hub. It takes two sets of train tracks, so for 70 000 cash, it already costs less than two train stations and keeps the intercity trains with like six passengers on them from clogging up your whole intracity train network. You effectively get a metro station and two monorail stations for free.

As for the new kinds of transit, I have to say I'm kind of torn on the monorails. They have the same passenger capacity as trains and you can run the tracks over roads, so it's really handy for areas where you don't have space for rails; but this is kind of countered by the fact that the stations are massively noisy. Also, annoyingly, the roads with stations on them won't snap to your roads but only to the global grid, so that sometimes makes your streets irritatingly wonky. I'm currently mostly using them because the train-monorail hub is the only reasonable multi-platform train station.

Cable cars are very niche, but if you've got steep inclines on your map, they can be darn useful. Blimps I'm still sort of struggling to find a use for; they only take as many passengers as a bus and are darn slow. But really, who cares, because the reason you build a blimp depot and set up a route is to see blimps floating majestically over your city. So I love them.

Finally: boats! Ferries are wonderful. I remember playing on the Black Woods map and desperately wishing I could connect passenger harbors, but ferries are even better. The ferry piers are cheap and fairly unobtrusive, and the ferries take 50 passengers each, which means they can handle more volume that you might expect. I'd say they're almost worth the price of the expansion on their own, but I guess you do really have to like boats for that to be true.

Some of the stuff we got for free with the accompanying patch, and I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity to add and remove traffic lights. However, the stop signs aren't exactly ideal. In one of the developer diaries, Colossal Order intimated that they were originally considering yield signs rather than stop signs, which is disappointing because yield signs would have been so much better. Stop signs are useful for small roads with low traffic joining bigger roads, but any time there's a larger volume of traffic, they'll just create a massive traffic jam. The specific instance given in the dev diary is roundabouts, which are a great example of why stop signs are bad. Yes, if only one road has moderate or heavy traffic, putting stop signs on all the others gives it priority. But if there are two or more roads with real traffic feeding into the roundabout, stop signs are useless as they'll just create a massive backlog of traffic. Yield signs might actually work, but stop signs turn moderate traffic into a total logjam.

On the whole, though, Mass Transit is a pretty good expansion. The weirdest thing is how impractical the transit hubs are, and the absence of multi-platform metro stations is inexcusable, but the boats and blimps are good. I'm happy with my purchase; as with everything on Steam, this too will be on sale, and unless you're some kind of revolting monster that doesn't like boats and mass transit, I'd recommend picking it up.

**

As I was writing this, Green Cities was announced as the next expansion. I'm cautiously optimistic; leveling specializations sounds good, and I'm intrigued by the promise of road modding. Might we finally get to place zebra crossings? Apparently we are getting a non-polluting alternative for garbage disposal; frankly, it'd be about time! I do wonder what "sustainable cities" means, though. You can have a city with no polluting industry right now; because you'll then be importing all your goods, that just means you're having someone else do your polluting for you - not exactly sustainable.

Nonetheless, I remain very happy with Cities: Skylines.

Dec 4, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 39: Farewell to Lórien

That night the Company was again summoned to the chamber of Celeborn, and there the Lord and Lady greeted them with fair words.

Celeborn and Galadriel tell the Fellowship that it's about time they cleared out, and offer each of them the choice of heading onward or going back home. It's a good point: in War of the Ring, this can be a good moment to split off some companions from the Fellowship, especially if you've got an event card like There and Back Again. This time, however, everyone stays with the Company.

But where will they go? The Great River, Anduin, flows south past Lórien: on its west bank is Minas Tirith, Boromir's home; to the east, Mordor and the Cracks of Doom. Boromir is for Gondor, but no-one else can decide. Celeborn saves them from their dilemma by offering to give them boats, which the Fellowship gladly accept.

On their last night in Lórien, they briefly debate the road ahead. Most of the Company want to go to Minas Tirith, where they could at least be safe for a while. This was also Aragorn's original plan, but with Gandalf gone, he doesn't know what to do, and Frodo doesn't say anything. Boromir almost straight up says that it's madness to throw away the Ring by going to Mordor, but checks himself. The debate adjourns, with nothing decided.

The next day, the Companions are given lembas, elven waybread, and hooded cloaks woven by Galadriel and her maidens. They head southeast, to the shores of the Great River, where they practice boating and, to Sam's delight, receive a gift of elven ropes.

After a song and a ceremonial meal with Celeborn and Galadriel, the first lays out their options on the trip to come. The River flows through barren lands until it comes to Tol Brandir and the falls of Rauros. To the west of there is the way to Minas Tirith, where Celeborn warns against venturing into the forest of Fangorn. To the east of Rauros are the Dead Marshes, and Mordor.

Finally, Galadriel gives them all gifts. Aragorn gets a sheath for his sword and a special green stone; Merry and Pippin get silver belts with golden clasps. Sam the gardener gets a box of earth from Galadriel's orchard, Legolas a bow and Boromir a golden belt. She asks Gimli what he wants as a gift, and Gimli says that seeing her has been gift enough. When pressed, he requests a lock of her hair, to be treasured as an heirloom of his house. He gets his wish, and finally Frodo is presented with a phial of water, which will give him light in dark places.

After this ceremony of gifts, the Fellowship get in their boats and leave. They seem to perceive Lórien floating away from them, and after one last song by Galadriel, it's gone, and the Fellowship ride the river into the barren, brown lands.

**

This is kind of a brief chapter, very focused on the road ahead. After a breather of sorts in Lórien, the Fellowship has to move on, but it's become painfully obvious that no-one really knows where. Maybe Gandalf had a plan, maybe he didn't; at any rate, he never told anyone, which isn't great leadership. Maybe he was planning to use the Eagles. Who knows?

For now, the boats provided by Celeborn and Galadriel postpone the decision, but the choice is clear: Minas Tirith or Mordor. Boromir is beginning to speak his doubts, Aragorn is indecisive and no-one else is saying anything. The stage is being set for the end of the first volume.

Also, Lórien is truly Faerie here: rather than the Fellowship boating away from it, Lórien withdraws from them, and leaves them weeping in the desert of the real. We've had epic river crossings before, but this is kind of an epic river navigation, leaving Faerie behind and drifting down the river of time.

Next time: boating.