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The flute that sets Kurosawa’s Kagemusha in motion

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- also the battle of Gaixia, 200 BCE, with an echo late in the Korean War -- and a tip of the hat to Emlyn ]
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Kagemusha, the flute call:

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There’s a sequence near the start of Akria Kurosawa‘s masterpiece, Kagemusha, when a flute player on the ramparts of a besieged castle belonging to Tokugawa Ieyasu so captivates the men of the daimyo Takeda Shingen‘s besieging force that everyone listens for the flute each night:

Our men are impressed. They can’t wait for night to come.

This flute, in turn, becomes the primary indicator of whether the besieged castle will or will not fall after the besiegers cut its water supply. The daimyo’s general and close confidant suggests whe asked:

The castle can stand longer. The garrison leader is a fine warrior. He lets us hear the flute at night. …

If we hear him tonight the garrison will hold. The castle will not fall. But if we do not hear the flute, the castle is doomed. Its fall is near.

To which the daimyo responds:

I want to hear if the flute is played tonight. Prepare my seat.

The daimyo’s seat is prepared, the flute plays, a shot rings out… the daimyo is mortally wounded… and the narrative of the film unfurls.

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I was watching Kagemusha with son Emlyn last night, saying how close the film seemed to come to my current interests, and remarked on the scene with the flute because it illustrates so perfectly the ideas that morale may prove more powerful than materiel, and the arts as valuable in coflict as ballistics.

Emlyn spent a short while at the computer, and found two web-pages he thought might interest me.

The first page pointed me to the battle of Gaixia in 202 BCE, in which Han Xin trapped Xiang Yu‘s Chu forces in a box canyon,

To further break the Chu army’s spirit, Han Xin employed the “Chu Song from Four Sides” tactic. He ordered the Han soldiers and captured Chu troops to sing Chu songs. The Chu songs made the Chu troops remember their families back home, greatly reducing their will to fight.

Increasingly homesick, the Chu soldiers began to desert, Han Xin’s brilliant tactic gave him the vistory, and the Han dynasty was established.

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The second page Emlyn pointed me to was titled The Use of Music in Psyops. In it, SGM Herbert Friedman takes a long (67 pp.) and detailed look at this general topic, and made a fascinating “DoubleQuote” style connection with the first in its near-final paragraph:

The Communist Chinese used music against American troops on several occasions during the Korean War. Soldiers from the U.S. Army 2nd Infantry Division recalled that when the enemy played Joni James’ rendition of Hank Williams “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” on dark and foggy nights it gave soldiers some reason to pause and think of home.

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For your edification and delight, Joni James sings Hank WilliamsYour Cheatin’ Heart:

Here Liu Fang plays the celebrated pipa solo that depicts the stages of the battle, The Ambush from all Sides:

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For what it’s worth, the banner and motto of the Takeda clan, Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain — given in the subtitles as —

Swift as the wind
Quiet as a forest
Fierce as fire
Immovable as a mountain

— which adds much to the poetry of our understanding of Japanese warfare, is known as the Furinkazan, and derives from Sun Tzu‘s seventh chapter:

Therefore the army is established on deception, mobilized by advantage, and changed through dividing up and consolidating the troops.
Therefore, it advances like the wind,
it marches like the forest,
it invades and plunders like fire,
it stands like the mountain,
it is formless like the dark,
it strikes like thunder.

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Beautiful film, great film.

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The Carrier Potemkin vs the Potemkin Carrier

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- who is of the opinion that word-order matters ]
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I look at it this way:

The Battleship Potemkin was indeed a battleship, as well as giving its name to one of the great films of all time, while a Potemkin village is at best just a façade — and may even be no more than the name for a façade, if as Cecil Adams reports at The Straight Dope, there weren’t even any Potemkin village façades built to please Catherine the Great in the first place…

So the first image above, which shows an actual Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaodong Liaoning, can reasonably be called the Carrier Potemkin. The Chinese carrier may have “lousy engines, lousy air support, lousy convoy support, and lousy sub support” as Kevin Drum suggests, but it is an aircraft carrier. And if David Axe (or a graphics editor at Danger Room) calls it a Potemkin Carrier, in my view the two words are being used in the wrong order.

The real Potemkin Carrier — all façade and no bite — is the one depicted in the lower image above — a replica of the US aircraft carrier Nimitz, complete with the painted number 68 on its light deck, but only about two-thirds the length of its puissant original, and made largely of wood..

It’s simply a matter of terminological exactitude… and in its own way, puissance vs façade!

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Never bring a sword to a pen fight?

Monday, March 24th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- in which I suggest that reality may be more like a river, our understandings more like canals ]
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Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, "Moon of Enlightenment" from One Hundred Views of the Moon


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I read a couple of things this morning that struck me. The first was in Zen’s post, Dealing with the China we Have Rather than the China we Wish to Have:

Getting your adversary to negotiate with powerless and ill- informed representatives while the real decision makers sit at a remove is a time-tested tactic in bargaining.

The side that uses this approach gets at least two bites at every apple which means the other side increasingly has to give further concessions to secure what they thought had already been agreed to. It is a classic example of negotiating in bad faith. Furthermore, the side using it is the one interested in winning or at best, in buying time, not in reaching an agreement.

When presented with this dynamic the smart move is to walk away and immediately implement whatever the other side would rather you not do or give up the game and move on to something else. Agreements and treaties have no intrinsic value unless they advance, or at least preserve, interest. If the other party has no intention of abiding by the terms at all then they are less than worthless, being actively harmful.

There’s this business about words and realities, or maps and territories if you prefer. The word is not the thing, the finger pointing is not the moon, the name that can be named is not the true name… and gaming a war is not the same as fighting it.

And yet troop movements near a border “in an exercise” are still troop movements, and thus threatening. And a threat is what? — an implicit form of violence?

Alex Schmid, in his Revised Academic Consensus Definition of Terrorism, #3, writes of “physical violence or threat thereof employed by terrorist actors”…

A threat, a promise, a plan, a scenario, a prediction, a prophecy, a self-fulfilling prophecy — words and images have impact, the pen can be mightier than the sword, just as it can be cut down by it. How does the saying go? Don’t bring a pen (or sketch-pad) to a swordfight? or should it be — never bring a sword to a pen fight?

So how do we talk about the disjunction Zen mentions, the “negotiating in bad faith” mechanism, in game theoretic terms? What kinds of maps allow us to note the positioning of minds as well as mortars?

And what if the minds themselves are split — how do we model that?

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Which brings me to the second thing I read today — this one in Graeme Smith‘s The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, p 96:

Like many Afghans, my translator’s extended family included both government workers and insurgents. Not all of them disagreed with each other ideologically; sometimes they followed the pragmatic tradition in which Afghan families hedge their bets, sending their sons to serve in a variety of factions in a conflict.

I’d seen this division of familial labor mentioned some years ago, and today a review of Smith’s book brought the memory back to me, and again I wondered — what does that do to all those network maps that show who knows who?

I guess what I’m saying is that reality is inherently fluid — like a river if you will, with its shifting banks and oxbow lakes — while our categories for thinking about reality tend to be as straight and inflexible as a canal.

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How do we transition, in understanding, from the neat, crisp idea to the rumpled reality? From the finger pointing, to the moon?

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Dealing with the China we Have Rather than the China we Wish to Have

Monday, March 24th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

A Sinocentric view of the maritime world courtesy of  The Policy Tensor (hat tip Historyguy 99)

An amigo who is an expert on China pointed me toward a couple of links last weekend. Here is the first:

Japan-China COLD WAR 8 / CPC decisions made under layers of veiled obscurity 

….Whenever a crisis occurs, diplomatic authorities typically attempt to assess the situation by contacting their counterpart of the country concerned to investigate, if any, what their intentions are. For example, the incident could merely have been an accident or a calculated act sanctioned by those at the center of the administration. But when the Chinese become involved, such diplomatic approaches may no longer be a possibility.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which is supposed to be the equivalent of the U.S. State Department or Japan’s Foreign Ministry, is “merely an organization which carries out policies decided by the Communist Party of China (CPC),”a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi is just one of 205 members of the Central Committee of the CPC, and is not even included in the 25-member Politburo, which is regarded as the party’s leadership organ.

Indeed, when the Chinese National Defense Ministry announced the establishment of the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, including the Senkaku Islands, on Nov. 23, the Japanese Embassy in Beijing approached the Chinese Foreign Ministry. However, an official in charge at the ministry said, “We don’t know about it [ADIZ], as it’s outside our jurisdiction,” which left the embassy nonplussed.

If the Chinese Foreign Ministry is of so little use, then where are the country’s diplomatic policies worked out? Important decisions are made by the Central Leading Small Group on Foreign Affairs, while decisions on military affairs are carried out at the Central Military Commission.

The two organizations are central organs within the CPC, erecting a barrier for diplomatic and defense authorities of the United States or Japan. Discussions in these organizations are kept secret from the outside. Diplomatic relations in China are complicated further by individual diplomatic issues sometimes being used as ammunition to attack rivals in power struggles within the Communist Party.

….Between the United States and China, there is the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA), signed in January 1998. However, the accord was no use on occasions such as a collision between a U.S. Navy plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea in April 2001.

Former Defense Undersecretary for Policy Michele Flournoy, who was the chief negotiator in vice ministerial-level defense talks with China under the first administration of Barack Obama, said during an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 4, that the United States tried to have the MMCA function, but the Chinese side took a backward-looking stance. Although there is a mechanism there, China had almost no intention of complying with the mechanism properly, she added.

Our problem here is not China or the Chinese government, but our own credulity in the face of empirical evidence. The Chinese are simply playing their cards well for as long as we are going to allow them to do so. In their shoes, I would suggest doing exactly the same so long as it keeps working.

Getting your adversary to negotiate with powerless and ill- informed  representatives while the real decision makers sit at a remove is a time- tested tactic in bargaining.

The side that uses this approach gets at least two bites at every apple which means the other side increasingly has to give further concessions to secure what they thought had already been agreed to. It is a classic example of negotiating in bad faith. Furthermore, the side using it is the one interested in winning or at best, in buying time, not in reaching an agreement.

When presented with this dynamic the smart move is to walk away and immediately implement whatever the other side would rather you not do or give up the game and move on to something else. Agreements and treaties have no intrinsic value unless they advance, or at least preserve, interest. If the other party has no intention of abiding by the terms at all then they are less than worthless, being actively harmful.

China’s decision-making is both opaque and riven by factions about which Americans are poorly informed, even those who have real academic expertise and language fluency are forced periodically to read tea leaves about high level decisions within the CCP.  The following link represents a certain attitude among more nationalistic Chinese elites:

China Should Coordinate the Gradual Fall of the U.S.

When a giant is about to fall, you should give him certain support to help him to fall down slowly instead of his falling down all of a sudden, or you would be the one who suffers. That’s why I said “China should coordinate the gradual fall of the U.S.” instead of allowing her to collapse all at once.

….In the long term, the U.S. is heading towards decline and will become weaker and weaker. However, the so-called “weak” is a comparative word. In comparison with China, the U.S. is still very strong. The U.S. is going down from the summit, whereas China’s is climbing up from below. 

Sohu Business: That is to say, we do not need to worry about the overall safety of China’s foreign exchange reserve over a period of time?

Sheng Hong: Yes, but we still need to be constantly alert. In the long run, the U.S. dollar will gradually weaken and a crash of the currency is possible when it weakens to a certain extent. This is because, one way to solve the U.S. debt problem is to borrow, and another important way is to increase the supply of dollars, which will further weaken the U.S. dollar. 

If people lose faith in the U.S. dollar and anticipate the U.S. government to continue the inflation policy, they will sell dollars and aggravate the crash of the currency. This, however, will not happen at once. Moreover, the U.S. government is rather cautious at present. Although it is inclined to a loose monetary policy, including the quantitative easing monetary policy, thus increasing the amount of U.S. dollars, which made up the U.S. fiscal deficit, fiscal problems will soon be reflected in its currency. Therefore, in terms of interests, China must be very careful though this problem will not happen right now and that the U.S. dollar is still stronger than the RMB now; in terms of strategies, China should pay more attention to and begin to make preparations for it. Or it would be too late to prepare when that day comes.

…. In fact, the turning point came out long ago. Moreover, I have mentioned in my articles published previously that the turning out was actually the financial crisis which occurred at the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008. Now, it’s just that some people attached labels to current events, before which many people did not even know about the situation. Nevertheless, economists should start their analysis from the financial crisis. I mentioned in my article titled Who Would Let Obama Stand Alone? that Americans could not blame others for questioning the safety of the U.S. assets since they caused the financial crisis by themselves. I won’t buy your financial assets if I do not trust their safety. If you want me to buy your financial assets, you must offer higher returns. When you lose others’ trust in you, you are already going down from the peak. 

The 9/11 Attacks struck the U.S. seriously, but not as seriously as the Financial Crisis did. The Financial Crisis was inherent rather than extrinsic. I have been following this issue ever since the financial crisis. I said at that time that the U.S. would gradually head towards decline. The debt crisis happened because not so much seigniorage could be collected any more. The U.S. has inertia in foreign military contacts which prevents it from withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan and Iraq at once, and it had to cope with the financial crisis. Therefore, the debt crisis is inevitable. It is not a turning point but a label attached by S & P. 

….The military contraction. This is very important. After Obama came to power, he clearly sensed that the military existence by the U.S. throughout the world could not remain the same as before because the U.S. has less and less money. The reality of the U.S. faced by Obama is an inevitable continuous contraction, which is actually a strategic turning point of great significance for the U.S. I mentioned just now that when trade deficits are reduced, less reflux of dollars will be attracted, resources of military expenditure will be reduced, and then military forces should be contracted. 

It is human nature to not want to accept the reality that some people genuinely intend us harm. Sure, in the abstract yes but when eye to eye people tend to bend themselves into pretzels giving the other person the benefit of the doubt when the empirical record indicates otherwise. This willing gullibility is why con games have such staying power when the first instance of bad faith is usually a foreshadowing of the nature of who you are really dealing with. It is so much easier psychologically to ignore rather than to confront and embrace conflict (even when it is only rhetorical).

The elephant in the room is that there’s an influential faction within China’s elite that has unrealistic to grandiosely hegemonic ambitions regarding China’s role in Asia and the world. They are not the entirety of China or even China’s leadership, but given China’s aggressive bullying behavior of the past three to five years, they appear to be ascendant. That is a strategic dilemma for the US and its allies.

Our job is to interrupt their momentum so that their hopes come to grief and our that moves that strengthen the faction in China’s leadership that prefers peaceful and harmonious relations over conflict with all of China’s neighbors and the United States.

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Jottings 11: self-immolators and suicide bombers?

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- on some aspects of religiously motivated suicide, and I'm not clear why I called this one a jotting, since it's quite long and detailed ]
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I have been taking a couple of online courses on terrorism in recent months, and in one of them I ran across a Foreign Policy article titled Ultimate Sacrifice: What’s the difference between self-immolators and suicide bombers?

… there is another form of deadly protest that has made a resurgence in recent years. Not only did Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s fiery suicide ignite the region and inspire subsequent self-immolations in Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco, but a growing number of Tibetans have also set themselves alight to protest Chinese rule in Tibetan region

It’s an intriguing question, phrased by one of my fellow students as the question, “Can Tibetan Self-immolators be considered “terrorists”?

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I did my “due diligence” research, and came up with some articles worth reading:

  • Tenzin Tharchen, 125 Self-Immonlations: why suicide by fire protests continue in Tibet
  • Tsering Shakya, Self-Immolation, the Changing Language of Protest in Tibet
  • Martin Kovan, Buddhist Self-immolation and Mahayanist Absolute Altruism
  • while my interlocutor offered this one:

  • Jose Cabezon, On The Ethics Of The Tibetan Self-Immolations
  • But you know, the mind has indirect back-channels as well as direct information freeways, and the question seems to have been percolating while I’ve been asleep.

    **

    Sonam Wangyal, Lama Sobha, was the first Tibetan lama to self-immolate, and left a cassette tape in which he explained his motives:

    I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them — each of whom has been our mother in the past and yet has been led by ignorance to commit immoral acts — to the Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light. My offering of light is for all living beings, even as insignificant as lice and nits, to dispel their pain and to guide them to the state of enlightenment. I offer this sacrifice as a token of long-life offering to our root guru His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all other spiritual teachers and lamas.

    The full text of Lama Sobha’s message can be found at the bottom of an International Campaign for Tibet page titled Harrowing images and last message from Tibet of first lama to self-immolate — the “harrowing images” themselves are linked to, but not shown.

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    The Chinese come close to targeting Tibetan self-immolators as terrorists, using the terms “Splittist”– so often also used of the Dalai Lama — and calling their actions “intentional homicide”. This from the “>Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Tibet:

    Nonetheless, the response by the Chinese authorities to self-immolations by Tibetans has been extremely draconian, largely because of an assumption that all protest by Tibetans must be intrinsically “splittist” (that is, secessionist). In particular, it has involved the formulation of new laws that seem to target Tibetans specifically, and the imposition of collective punishments, and the application of the crime of “intentional homicide” to all those aiding, abetting, encouraging or even photographing self-immolations.

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    It occurs to me that sacrificing oneself for the benefit of other beings is symbolically enacted in the Tibetan Chöd ritual, in which one symbolically feeds the parts of one’s body to the pretas or hungry demons to satiate them and put them to sleep — and also in some of the Jataka Tales of the previous rebirths of the Shakyamuni Buddha.

    I’m thinking particularly of The Bodhisattva and the Hungry Tigress, and will quote here from Edward Conze‘s telling in Buddhist Scriptures, pp 24-26. On being told that self-sacrifice is difficult, Mahasattva (the future Buddha) replies:

    It is difficult for people like us, who are so fond of our lives and bodies, and who have so little intelligence. It is not difficult at all, however, for others, who are true men, intent on benefitting their fellow-creatures, and who long to sacrifice themselves. Holy men are born of pity and compassion. Whatever the bodies they may get, in heaven or on earth, a hundred times will they undo them, joyful in their hearts, so that the lives of others may be saved.

    His prayer before offering his own body and blood to feed an ailing tigress and her cubs is:

    For the weal of the world I wish to win enlightenment, incomparably wonderful. From deep compassion I now give away my body, so hard to quit, unshaken in my mind. That enlightenment I shall now gain, in which nothing hurts and nothing harms.

    Assuming the Jataka tales made it to Tibet, this one might be a potent influence on potential self-immolators.

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    A possible Tamil “comparable” — presumably Hindu rather than Buddhist, culturally if not religiously:

    When young Murugathasan Varnakulasingham (aged 26) committed self-immolation in front of the UN headquarters in Geneva on 19 February 2009 he was protesting against international failures of intervention in the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in northern Sri Lanka, where he believed that large bodies of Tamil people faced extinction by the Sri Lankan government. “The flames over my body will be a torch to guide you through the liberation path,” he wrote in his parting letter.

    There have been a few other protest suicides by Tamils in Tamilnadu and Malaysia, but Varnakulasingham’s altruistic act probably garnered the most attention.

    **

    Further thoughts:

    There’s always Samson, pulling down the pillars that upheld the roof of their temple on the Philistines, once he’d regrown his hair and strength…

    Then the lords of the Philistines gathered them together for to offer a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god, and to rejoice: for they said, Our god hath delivered Samson our enemy into our hand. And when the people saw him, they praised their god: for they said, Our god hath delivered into our hands our enemy, and the destroyer of our country, which slew many of us. And it came to pass, when their hearts were merry, that they said, Call for Samson, that he may make us sport. And they called for Samson out of the prison house; and he made them sport: and they set him between the pillars. And Samson said unto the lad that held him by the hand, Suffer me that I may feel the pillars whereupon the house standeth, that I may lean upon them. Now the house was full of men and women; and all the lords of the Philistines were there; and there were upon the roof about three thousand men and women, that beheld while Samson made sport. And Samson called unto the Lord, and said, O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes. And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.

    — Judges 16.23-30 — not quite self-immolation, not quite suicide bombing, but certainly suicidal warfare with a religious motive.

    Okay, When Christians quote John 15.13:

    Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

    surely they include in their understanding of that verse, those who throw their bodies on top of grenades to protect their comrades — which would seem in its own way to parallel the teaching of the Jataka Tale.

    **

    Likewise, when Muslims quote the hadith from Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 52, Number 53, in which the Prophet says:

    Narrated Anas bin Malik:

    The Prophet said, “Nobody who dies and finds good from Allah (in the Hereafter) would wish to come back to this world even if he were given the whole world and whatever is in it, except the martyr who, on seeing the superiority of martyrdom, would like to come back to the world and get killed again (in Allah’s Cause).”

    and from Sahih Muslim, Chapter 28, Book 020, Number 4626:

    It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (may peace upon him) said:

    [ … ] By the Being in Whose Hand is Muhammad’s life, if it were not to be too hard upon the Muslims. I would not lag behind any expedition which is going to fight in the cause of Allah. But I do not have abundant means to provide them (the Mujahids) with riding beasts, nor have they (i.e. all of them) abundant means (to provide themselves with all the means of Jihad) so that they could he left behind. By the Being in Whose Hand is Muhammad’s life, I love to fight in the way of Allah and be killed, to fight and again be killed and to fight again and be killed.

    — how close are we to Nathan Hale:

    I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country

    — and behind that, to Joseph Addison:

    What a pity it is
    That we can die but once to serve our country.

    — that’s from Addison’s now obscure play, Cato, a Tragedy, Act IV, Scene 4

    **

    Of course, the way to stop self-immolations in Tibet is simple — put up a notice:

    See also New document sheds light on China’s campaign against self-immolations in Tibet

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