Monday, March 27, 2006

Old-time science boys

My brother Will, the Lutheran theologian, sent a letter to me and to my other brothers with a photocopy of the review essay by Joseph Bottum in the latest First Things. (Bottum's piece is not available online yet, when it is I will add a link here.) Bottum writes about The Mad Scientists' Club series by Bertrand R. Brinley, which admittedly does not sound like the most promising basis for a serious essay. He nevertheless manages to be quite insightful and evocative, and to say something important about the life of the mind and heart and imagination that many of us led while we were growing up. Here is the letter Will sent along with the essay. It's a better commentary on the matter than any words of mine.
My dear brothers all,

I just now read the enclosed article by Joseph Bottum (his real name!) in the latest First Things, and it moved me with such happy and deep memories that I had to sit down and write you a note to send along with it.

We were all old-time science boys, weren't we? The stuff we built, or wanted to build, or could have built but for the lack of a few crucial components -- why should magnesium be so hard to come by? and is it really necessary to have laws about selling radioactive isotopes to minors? -- or a few dollars. Honestly, I think we'd had even $10 to spend, we would have killed ourselves and burned the house down.

Bottum's review essay captures the secret we shared, the secret of what we might have called science but was really something a little different, more like engineering, or inventing. I don't think I remember the Mad Scientists' Club books, but didn't Dub have a copy of Brinley's Rocket Manual for Amateurs? I'm sure I remember that. Do you still have it?

I believe there were a lot of us back then. Maybe it was the romance and the hardball, cold-war competition of the Space Race that bred us, and that has surely changed. I guess we humans will go to Mars, maybe in my lifetime. I hope so (but I wonder now if there aren't more interesting places in the solar system to go first... have you seen the pictures from Enceladus?). But it's not the same, is it? Do you suppose our kids will ever spend a long, dark night in the Montana backcountry oohing and aahing as they watch satellites flare and fade as they twist in the orbital sunlight?

In my experience, you can recognize a fellow "science boy" pretty quick when you meet him. Some are engineers, building real stuff now, for a living. My brother-in-law Dan is one us. Of course, he grew up with some breathtaking advantages over us: his father had a welding machine (and taught Dan how to use it), and they had firearms (and ammunition) around the house. It's a miracle he made it to adulthood, but no wonder at all that he's an engineer.

But not all of us followed that first love of gee-whiz gadgets, technical jargon, and model rockets. I am an example of a convert to the other of C. P. Snow's two cultures, a bona fide liberal arts guy, and no looking back. No matter: we know each other as kindred spirits, all of us who have shared the wonder and sheer delight of free invention. We have tinkered with the technology of our firecracker cannons to improve both accuracy and range. We have shaved match-heads and stuffed tiny tubes of foil and puzzled out guidance mechanisms for the little beasties. In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire."

The Justice was talking about the Civil War (he was shot through the neck at Antietam); but it still rings true for us, lesser sons of greater sires though we be. We were touched with the fire of rockets and of creation; we are (so far) survivors in this long war against the barely-possible and the not-yet-workable. I am proud to have served with you all, my brothers, and will be happy to spend another night under some dark sky filled with wonders.


Storyblogging Carnival XLI

The Forty-First Storyblogging Carnival is now open for your reading pleasure! Nine posts by seven writers, for over 20,000 words of the coolest fiction in the blogosphere! Here goes:
  • Mark A. Rayner at the skwib presents Thag not like politics! (500 words, rated PG). Mark provides no blurb, but if you've followed Thag's adventures so far, you'll know what to expect!
This story is part of something I'm trying where I'm writing for 30 minutes at a time. This particular story is just a scene where a man meets a woman who had asked him for help.
The Sage of Wales explains in a lecture how he got into the Cthulhu harassing game in the first place. Was written with an eye to turning the SoW series of tales into a radio series.
I came home the other night at midnight and thought I would start on an assignment not due for a few months - a three thousand word short story. I had been playing the scenario out in my head for a while but this was the first attempt at writing it down. The hours ticked away and I found I couldn't stop writing until it had left my system.

Reading this one is the same -- once you get on, there's nowhere to get off till the end.
No one ever said it was easy to get out of the deepest dungeon. In fact, they always said it was very very hard. (Were they right!)

(A confession. Since I joined the Storyblogging Carnival only fairly recently, I've been reluctant to get involved in long serials already in progress. Sheya's posted 137,568 words so far of her trilogy-in-progress, so hers certainly qualifies! After reading these installments, though, I'm hooked. I've clearly got a lot of catching up to do, starting with Chapter 1.)
  • And finally, right here at Zeroth Order Approximation, I'm pleased to present both Part III and Part IV of The Pasadena Rule (10,900 words, for a total of about 25,000, rated PG). This is an old-fashioned "hard" science fiction novella about the human exploration of Venus -- with, I hope, enough twists and thrills to keep you interested. (If you've been waiting till the whole story's posted to begin reading it, now's your chance. Here's Part I.)
That does it this time around. Thanks to everyone who submitted work. See you all at the next Storyblogging Carnival!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Coming attraction

The next Storyblogging Carnival -- number XLI, as I understand -- will be right here at Zeroth Order Approximation one week from today. Now is the time to submit your work to be included!

Pretty much any piece that you've written and posted on your blog that is (1) a story and (2) not outrageously offensive, qualifies. Stories of any length are welcome, and you may also post installments of works-in-progress. Official detailed rules should be here. (At the moment, though, the official rules link comes up with a blank page for me. For details, you might check instead one of the previous announcement posts on Donald Crankshaw's page, such as this one.)

Each entry should include the following data:
  • Title of story
  • URL of story
  • Name of author (optional)
  • Name of blog
  • URLof blog
  • Word count
  • Rating (like R, PG, etc.)
  • A short blurb describing the story
I'll be collecting entries through midnight (EST) on Saturday/Sunday night, 25/26 March 2006. Send yours to schumacherb(at) with "Storyblogging" in the subject line. After I sort the various entries out, the Carnival itself will be posted here on Monday, 27 March 2006. See you then!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Colleges and carnivals

David, a high school friend of mine, went to the same small college that I did. He and I had different reasons for going to there. In my case, I'd attended four high schools in four states in four years, and I wasn't much interested in going to yet another new town. Luckily, there was an excellent liberal arts college near my home, and so that's where I went. David's father had actually been a religion professor at the college, before he left (at the same time that David graduated from high school) to pursue a second career in architecture. So this college was, for David, already home. I didn't want to move; David's parents moved out from under him.

It didn't work out very well for David. It turns out that there are some disadvantages in taking college classes from people who knew you when you were four years old. And every time he visited his academic advisor -- a prince of a guy, actually -- the first words out of his mouth were, "Hi, David! How are your folks?" After a couple of years of this, David transfered to a state university to study journalism, a happy change for him and the beginning of a fine career.

(Note: I've told this story often enough over the years that it probably qualifies under the Obsolete Anecdote Retirement Project. See here for details and background on this benevolent program.)

So my wife and I have been advising my daughter -- now a junior in high school, just at the beginning of the college-selection game -- to consider other schools besides the one where we teach. For the last week, my daughter and I have been traveling around to various other small colleges in the Midwest, taking the college tour at each and chatting with students and admissions people. My daughter also got to sit in on a few classes. This has served to help her get used to the whole idea of college -- a big step -- and let her "try on" a few possible academic futures. Also, it let me take a look at the competition.

After six days and 1400 miles on the road, I have a few observations. I note that some schools want to be a cool global international school, so they put lots of money and effort into bringing foreign students to campus and sending their students to other countries. (These are the schools that always show you a world map with lots of pins stuck in it.) Do the foreign students study off-campus too, or would that be cheating? Other schools have other emphases -- career-boosting internships, undergraduate research, etc. My favorite question to ask admissions counselors was, "What makes a student thrive at X College? Or better yet, if a student does not thrive here, why not?" The answers ranged from clueless to thoughtful, but in all cases were revealing.

Also, I am irritated by schools with a "Peace and Justice Institute" or some such. This irritates me because, first, you can with 100% reliability tell the ideological orientation of such a program, which to my mind explodes any claim to academic objectivity. What are the chances that any scholar affiliated with such a program will ever argue that the goals of peace and justice are best served by a strong US military and expanding free markets? (And is such a hypothesis substantially more ridiculous than other theories that certainly will be argued?) The other reason that these programs irritate me is that their titles are blatant attempts to steal rhetorical ground. After all, who can be against peace and justice? At least "History" or "Biochemistry" or "International Relations" do not implicitly assert that the goals of their practitioners are especially moral.

The practice of having campus tours led by students is a good one, not least because the students are quite candid and informative. I don't mean that they badmouth their alma mater. On the contrary, they are almost always very happy with their colleges. But if you listen closely, what they choose to say reveals a lot about the general attitudes on campus, and who they are reveals a lot about what sort of students are very happy at that college. The sample size is small, of course, but I think that the tours and their guides are real sources of insight.

Finally, I came back with an increased appreciation for my own college, which I think has a more beautiful campus, a sharper and more academically engaged student population, and a more interesting faculty than any of those other places. Oh, those folks are all right in their way, and sometimes they have a nice facility or some stand-out feature, but in most things I like us better.

Hmmmm. My wife and I may have to rethink our advice to my daughter.

All of which is to preface an apology. Because I've been on this college tour trip, I haven't yet pointed you in the direction of Storyblogging Carnival XL, which is being hosted by Trudy over at Desert Light Journal. It's a small carnival this time, but it does include Part II of The Pasadena Rule from me and several fine stories by storyblogging regulars. Also, the current plan is that the whole crazy Carnival will be right here on Zeroth Order Approximation, parked on my front lawn as it were, in about ten days' time. I guess I'd better stock up on the sawdust and the cotton candy!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

(Another) sermon for Lent

As I have written before, I sometimes have had the opportunity to preach sermons at my church. I posted a sermon for Lent here last year, and before that I gave one for Christmas Eve. Here is a fairly short one about prayer. I hope some of you may find it useful as a Lenten meditation for this year.

The inexplicable promise
(sermon preached at Harcourt Parish, April 28, 2002)

Jesus said, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going." Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."

Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it." (John 14:1-14, Gospel lectionary reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A)

The disciples are with Jesus, that last Passover at Jerusalem. And they know that something is up. Jesus has washed their feet, which they didn't understand, and told them that he is about to be betrayed. He tells them that he is leaving.

Thomas and Philip just want something to hold on to, I think. They want a doctrine, or a vision, or something. "How can we know the way? Show us the Father." And this is what Jesus answers them: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."

Do you think this helped? Do you think that Thomas and Philip and the others were comforted by our Lord's words? Do you think they felt that their questions had been answered? Or do you think that they found the answers strange and disturbing and inexplicable?

I myself favor the "strange, disturbing and inexplicable" view. And I think that Jesus knew his followers wouldn't "get it" right away. But he was preparing them for the time ahead. He knew that his words would be planted in them; and later, by the grace of God, those words would begin to unlock themselves in the disciples' understanding, and they would begin to see and to know.

When God speaks to us today, he does not always intend for us to understand today. And I find that reassuring. For it happens often enough that I read something in Scripture that I just don't get at all. I find it strange, disturbing and inexplicable. God knows this, and he is not surprised. My job for now may only be to take it in. Real understanding will come on God's schedule.

If you want an example of a passage of Scripture that I find a bit strange, disturbing and inexplicable, you have no further to look than the last verses of today's Gospel lesson. There we find the promise, made and repeated to the disciples, that whatever they ask in the Lord's name he will do. And of course, this passage is not just addressed to the disciples who were there. Whatever we ask, he will do. It's a promise made in plain language, and repeated one way or another in every gospel. "Ask, and you will receive." If you have faith, you can say to a mountain, "Go jump in a lake," and it will do it. (I paraphrase, but only slightly.)

I must confess that I find this bald promise of prayer granted difficult to accept. I find myself looking for the fine print, the clause that says, "Some restrictions may apply" or "Void where prohibited." Various logical objections occur to my mind. What if I pray for rain and you pray for sunshine – which of us does God renege on? What if I ask for something evil – will God do it anyway?

More serious objections, I think, are based on fear. What if I ask, and God doesn't do it? For I have to admit that as a possibility. It sounds cruel to say it, but it is the truth: hospitals and nursing homes are full of Christian folk, all praying, along with their family and friends, to get well. And some of them won't.

As I examine myself about this, I find that this wild and inexplicable promise from today's Gospel has affected my own prayers in a rather perverse way. It has made me more timid about what I ask of God, and how I ask it. Rather than pray for God to heal my mother's eye infection, I will pray instead for God to grant her strength and patience in this difficult time. Or else, I will pray, "Dear God, please heal my mother's eye, but of course your will be done." (As if to say, "So just in case you want her to go blind instead, that's okay too.") You see what is happening? I am taking it upon myself to leave God a loophole, so that he will be able to grant the prayer on a technicality without actually healing my mother's eye infection. The things that I pray for are not bad in themselves – strength and patience are great gifts, and it is always right to submit oneself to God's will. But it's pretty clear that there is something in this business of asking God for things that I have not understood, and I need to go back and straighten it out.

When I was in college, I knew this guy whom I will call Peter. (This is a pseudonym.) He wasn't exactly a friend, though I spent a good deal of time talking with him. He studied chemistry and philosophy, and he loved nothing better than to get me involved in some endless discussion or argument. Some of my actual friends didn't like Peter very much. He did have a nasty tendency to turn into The Guy You Couldn't Get Rid Of.

Eventually I went off to grad school in Texas; and when Peter graduated he went out to California. He had a lab job out there and I think he was working on his masters degree. Every few months I would get a long-distance phone call from him, and we would talk for an hour or so about science or philosophy or something. Not terribly memorable conversations -- at least not until the last one.

Peter told me that he had become interested in, and then active in, the practice of Wicca – that's witchcraft. He was learning to do magic rituals, cast spells, the whole bit. I was shocked and horrified. So we talked a long time. And after a while, he finally said, "Well, you know, this isn't really all that different from Christianity. Magic, for example, is basically the same thing as prayer."

"How do you figure?" said I.

"Well, in each case, you're trying to use your mind to make a change in the world around you. In magic, you're working the spell, and in prayer, you're cajoling a deity. What's the real difference?"

The conversation went on for a while longer and eventually ended; and in the years since then I've never again had a conversation with him. So I can't tell you how his story has turned out. But I can tell you that I have spent a good piece of the last seventeen or eighteen years pondering what I should have answered him.

I think it boils down to this. God can never be used just as a means to an end. He won't permit it. And anyway, I don't even think that it is possible.

In our dealings with each other, we treat each other as "means to an end" all the time. We talk and maneuver to get what we want. We are so good at it; and much of the time, admittedly, it's about small stuff and it seems pretty harmless. But whenever we deal with someone in this way, we no longer see that person entirely as a person. Other people become for us mere instruments to be used.

God may be more than a person, but he is surely not less. If we were to try this sort of approach with God – if we turn to prayer and begin to try to maneuver God into doing what we want – then in our mind God has become a mere thing. And when that happens, I think we will find that we have been praying to a figment of our imagination. You have to meet the real God as a person, or not at all.

And yet -- if, when I meet God in prayer, I never bring to him my real needs and desires; if I never ask anything of him, or I always hedge my requests with plenty of escape clauses; am I really doing much better? To treat prayer as a magic spell hides God from us; but to play it safe in prayer hides myself from God.

I can tell that this is going to be one of those things that can only be understood fully by jumping in and swimming in it. I will understand much more about how God answers prayer when I am readier to ask him things. This is not trying to use God as a means to an end. Our Lord commands us to pray, and to pray boldly, and make our requests, so that there will be no barrier between us.

For that is the real point of prayer, and the real aim of the Christian life: to be in him as he is in us. That is what Thomas and Philip heard, but did not at first understand. If we want to know the way, our Lord does not offer us a set of directions. He offers us himself. And if we want to know what God is like, he does not offer us a vision. He offers us himself. Strangely, disturbingly, inexplicably, he offers us himself. Nothing less.

Monday, March 06, 2006


My friend Michael is looking for a job as a faculty member at a small college. He's already had an offer of a tenure-track position at Alpha College back east. On Friday he heard from St. Beta College out west, who also made him a tenure-track offer. He liked Alpha College all right, but he more or less "fell in love" with the people and environment out at St. Beta. Michael wasn't quite prepared to accept St. Beta's offer on the spot (he is interviewing at Gamma University and at one of the campuses of an eastern state university system this week); but he would certainly choose St. Beta over Alpha. The question was whether to call Alpha immediately and decline their offer.

Michael is under no obligation to do this right away, since he has two weeks to decide on Alpha's offer. On the other hand, it would be the nice and thoughtful thing to do, since it would allow the good folks at Alpha to make their offer to someone else as soon as possible. Yet my friend had a nagging doubt. Sure, he'd talked to the folks at St. Beta. He'd even spoken to the dean. But what if something happened and the St. Beta offer somehow evaporated? If he'd already said "no" to Alpha, he could be stuck without a job.

I hasten to add that there are no indications that St. Beta might do this. It is a financially sound college with apparently trustworthy people running things. Michael got no "bad vibes" at all during his visit there, which is one reason he is so excited by the job offer. He was just wanting to be sure to guard his interests. I thought his question over and told him that I had never known of a faculty job offer being withdrawn in similar circumstances. Because this had such a low probability, I advised him to call Alpha right away and turn them down. I added, "One of the benefits of living in a litigation-crazed society is that a college like St. Beta would not do that. They know that it would expose them to a lawsuit."

I had occasion to remember this on Saturday morning. My daughter was going with the high school orchestra down to the city (an hour's drive) to participate in an orchestra contest. The week had been a busy one and we had not really made any weekend plans; but when the time came we thought it would be fun to pick my daughter up after her contest, go someplace nice to eat, maybe take in a movie or do some shopping, and come back home. My daughter did not think this would be allowed. Pish-posh, said I, or words to that effect. I wrote a note making a request to let her come home with us, and took her on Saturday morning to meet the bus at the high school, so that I could speak to her director.

Sure enough, my daughter was right. The orchestra director was apologetic, but she told me that, without the signature of a school administrator (which we could have gotten if we'd made our plans earlier in the week), they could not allow my daughter to be picked up by anyone else. Instead, she would have to return on the bus with the other students.

"Told ya," said my daughter.

"You mean," I said to the director, "that you can't even let her own parents bring her home?"

"That's right," the director said. (You could tell that she didn't like saying this.)

"Since when?"

"Since about a week ago. It's a new policy."

The students who were sitting and standing around had fallen silent and were watching us. Watching me, in fact. I am usually a jovial and mild-mannered sort of fellow in public, but I was clearly a bit irritated, and they were all obviously wondering if they would be treated to a rare glimpse of a Grown-up In Full Wrath. "Well," I said. "I do hope you convey to the administration that I think they are being a bit ..." I hunted for the right word. "... a bit rigid about this."

"Actually," she explained, "it was the insurance company. They insisted."

Of course. "I know it isn't your fault," I said. The family outing in the city was canceled, and the orchestra director and I parted on amicable terms. Nobody was particularly happy, except perhaps the insurance company; but there it is.

We live in a remarkably litigious society, and this affects us in ways that we don't always recognize. The main result of it, I think, is fear.

Fear is not all bad. Because my friend knows that St. Beta College would fear a lawsuit if they did him wrong, he can be more confident in their good behavior. But fear is not all good, either. Because the local school district and its liability insurance provider fear a lawsuit, a responsible teacher cannot agree to a reasonable request. She did not have the authority to do so, because if something went wrong -- however remote that possibility in this particular case -- the school district might be liable.

Defenders of our system of civil law, of torts and personal injury law and liability and all that, like to point out the undeniable benefits that spring, as in the first instance, from the ability of individuals to challenge institutions in court and make them pay for their misdeeds. It's a vital tool for ensuring justice for the little guy. And my complaint about the school administration was really only about a minor inconvenience. Would I rather that they were careless about my daughter's safety?

But that isn't the whole story, is it? Compare this to the criminal law. It is a good thing that there are laws against theft. But how does this law affect me? Because the police do their best to enforce this law and punish those who violate it, I am to some extent protected from thieves. I am also not a thief myself. On the other hand, I wouldn't say that I avoid robbery because of the law against it. It is better to say that I agree with that law, that I think it is reasonable and just. In addition, the law is enforced in a pretty fair and sensible way. So the effect of the law against theft is liberating, not confining. I live my life in the most carefree way you can imagine, just doing things that I want to do all day long and never worrying for a second that somebody will throw me in jail for stealing. It's a wonderful thing. And it is all because that law is so very easy to understand and to follow, and that the legal system is so uncapricious in its enforcement of the law.

But what if the law about theft was so complicated and unpredictable that almost any simple daily transaction might go wrong and land you in jail for theft? What if there were no real guidelines for the punishment for theft, so that the sentence might be anything from one month to life? Suppose that just living your life and acting like a reasonable citizen was not always enough to keep you out of criminal court on theft charges? Even if the probability of an actual prison term was pretty small, that possibility would affect everything you did. You would keep signed receipts for everything, even bubblegum from the store. You'd avoid some kinds of transactions altogether, because you just never know. Shopkeepers would have to have expensive insurance to pay for potential legal costs. And a huge amount of common everyday informal stuff -- including many generous and happy relationships -- would simply come to an end. Why? Because people would be afraid.

My point is that such a situation would be, not only less desirable, but also less lawful. In a free society built on the idea of ordered liberty, the law exists so that we can go about our lives without fear. Yet my story is only a slight exaggeration of the real situation in which we have gotten ourselves with regard to liability and lawsuits.

Lawsuits are, in a curious way, an essentially libertarian approach to maintaining civil order. They are a mechanism whereby individuals enforce good behavior, in institutions and each other, via market forces. Let the market do its magic and behold! Companies make safer products, doctors provide more conscientious care, neighbors are more reluctant to do you harm, all through personal choice and market incentives. Some of this analysis is quite accurate. In the actual event, though, the libertarian approach seems to promote, not liberty, but fear. This is as compact -- and compelling -- an argument against libertarianism as I have ever come across.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The edge of war

I usually miss the Sunday news-discussion shows, because I'm usually in church. But this Sunday, I was at the airport waiting to catch a plane, so I caught almost the whole of CNN's Reliable Sources on the TV monitor at the gate. This is a weekly show hosted by Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's media reporter, that is supposed to take a critical look at how the news of the week has been reported.

I read Kurtz from time to time -- smart guy, sometimes with intersting things to say -- but I've seldom seen his show. This time I watched it with some interest. The focus of the first half was a panel of network reporters (CNN, CBS, ABC) discussing news coverage of, among other things, the port-management controversy and the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Iraq and the subsequent troubles there. Gradually it began to dawn on me: All of these people agree. About everything. They all believe that the press has done a bang-up job covering just about anything you can name. The only criticism seemed to be that, because Iraq is so violent and dangerous, reporters have not been able to go to the dangerous areas and report how dangerous it is. In other words, Iraq is much worse than it has been portrayed. They agreed that the press has been too reluctant to talk about "civil war" in Iraq -- that this should have been the story six months ago. Here's Frank Sesno of CNN, who also teaches at George Mason University:

I think that there's a problem here, is that the media didn't talk more about civil war, a lot more, a lot more vocally earlier. This is an issue that has been put on the table in the last Gulf war, when Brent Scowcroft and others said we go there, we break it, we own it. And one of the reasons that they've talked about and they've talked about publicly since that they didn't go in is that they saw these centrifugal forces that could pull Iraq apart and destabilize the region.

And I thought, oh my gosh, the situation must have really deteriorated in the last couple of days. See, I had been at a physics conference, and I'd been thinking a lot more about quantum entanglements than foreign ones. So when I got home, I read some news stories. Sure enough, there had been some terrible violence in Iraq. Scores had died -- not nearly as many as the Washington Post reported, maybe, but still a grim tally. Yet there had also been some amazing displays of unity from all three corners of the Iraqi equation -- Shia, Sunni and Kurd. It did not appear that the violence was escalating, or that events were driving wedges into the political system. Trouble? Terrible trouble. Crisis? Yes indeed. Civil war? At the moment, that seems to be an exaggeration. But on Sunday morning, the conventional wisdom of a respected panel of broadcast journalists was that "civil war" has been the story in Iraq for months.

Among the bloggers I read regularly is Dr. Sanity, who comments on current affairs and other things from a psychiatric perspective. She is sometimes passionate and intemperate, but she is always smart and always worth reading. Yesterday I read a post in which she commented on a Ralph Peters column about press coverage in Iraq. (Got that? Peters to Sanity to me, a triple play.) Peters says, in so many words, that we're being lied to by the mainstream media. Sanity highlights this and delves further. And then she proposes a rather startling point of view: We have already won in Iraq. Things aren't rosy there, but what we are seeing is an aftermath of war, not a continuation of it. Yes, Iraq may yet descend into chaos. But that does not change the fact that we liberated Iraq, that we toppled Saddam, that he's on trial for his wicked deeds, that there have been three amazing elections in a part of the world that doesn't see them very often, that Zarqawi has been driven to more and more outrageous acts leading to an erosion of Al Qaeda's general political support. However future events turn out, Dr. Sanity says, that picture looks a whole lot like victory.

Did we really win the First World War, I wonder? The shooting stopped, our boys came home, the Boche went marching back to Germany, there was a peace treaty, etc. But history did not stop at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Things continued to happen. And if you wanted to make a case that the war was not really won by the Allies, there are plenty of points available. The human cost of the War was horrific, with an entire generation decimated in Britain and France. Russia, in even worse shape, had succumbed to the Bolsheviks, who held onto power despite the efforts of domestic opposition and foreign intervention. The peace treaty did not so much solve problems as kick them down the road, and within a generation Europe was in the grip of an even bloodier war. The German republic lasted less than a decade and a half, after which it was replaced by a regime immeasurably worse than the Kaiser ever was. The League of Nations proved to be impotent to secure the peace.

It seems to me that the Allies did indeed win in 1918, but the events of history kept happening -- as events tend to do, including events that later prove disastrous. The Armistice simply marked a pause, a period when the power configurations of Europe shifted, after which war erupted again in an even bloodier form. Was that a new war, or the same one?

I think it quite possible that an historian, looking back on our era from a hundred years hence, will actually draw the line sometime in the last year or so and say, "This was the end of the Iraq war, though terrorism and civil unrest continued for some time." Inasmuch as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were wars against nation-states, they have certainly come to an end, for the enemy was defeated in battle, driven from power and replaced by friendly regimes. The fact that those new regimes face dangers and troubles does not detract from the central fact.

It is also possible that our future historian will say that we are still in the middle of the real war, for which we have no name. Call it the Long War. It began in 2001 or 1991 or 1979 or 1948, and we might not see its end in our lifetime. This is probably closest to my own view, on most days. Nevertheless, there are individual campaigns in the Long War, and these may have definite beginnings, middles, and ends. Iraq is one such campaign.

How do we draw the boundaries of war in space and time? How do we say when the war begins, when it comes to an end, and what events are part of it? This is a semantic issue, of course, but we have to think about semantics when we judge the merits of this or that point of view. For instance, there are people who claim that the Iraq war has nothing to do with the War on Terror. The Bush administration, in their view, simply seized on post-9/11 jingoism to support their bid to remove Saddam from power. I do not altogether agree, but let's stipulate it for the moment. This is a point about the origin of the war. Yet the same people claim that continuing terrorism in Iraq is a sign that the war is still going on, that we haven't won, maybe that we can't win. Isn't this trying to have it both ways? To put it another way, whatever disagreements there are about the connection between Iraq and the War onTerror at the outset, is it not clear that the conflicts are inseparable now?

Then again, many want to connect the violence of this last week with the US invasion of three years ago, and say that they are part of the same conflict. They did occur in the same place, yes, and one set of events did lay the historical conditions for the other. But the players have changed. Saddam did not bomb the Golden Mosque. The US has not participated in much of the fighting that has ensued.

And when did the Iraq war begin? The US invasion? Why not Saddam's invasion of Kuwait? After all, we have more or less been in a state of armed hostility ever since. We signed a "cease fire" in 1991, not a peace treaty, and Saddam did not live up to its terms. For twelve years, scarcely a week went by when Iraqi air defenses did not fire on US or British aircraft. Saddam tried to assassinate Bush pere. More than once we lobbed cruise missiles into Iraq. Should we therefore count 2003 as just a new and more decisive campaign in a war that really began in 1990, and continued under three different Presidents?

This sort of question does not affect events, perhaps, but it does affect how we think about events. It affects what we say.

Wars blend into each other. They divide and merge and affect one another. It has always been so. Official "start" and "end" dates are useful handles for the mind, but they are artificial. The key question for most of us is when our boys (and girls now) come back from those dangerous foreign parts. Wars end when the warriors go home. By that measure, the Second World War never did come to a definitive end. So it will be, I fear, with the Long War.

At my physics conference over the weekend, I had dinner with my former student Jada, whose husband Tim is a Marine captain in Iraq. (I posted a letter from Tim last October.) Jada tells me that Tim is scheduled to be rotated home in a couple of weeks. This has been Tim's second tour in Iraq; it has lasted most of their married life. It appears that Tim will be taking up duties stateside for some time to come, which makes Jada very happy. One warrior, at least, is coming home.