How Democracies End

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

Anomaly UK has a theory about Weimar Germany and how democracies end:

The popular theory, which I’ve alluded to previously, is that the big event was this chap Hitler. He was some supernatural weirdo from Hell, who, like a false prophet, inspired the normal, liberal people of Germany to give up their democratic birthright and follow his dreams of securing lebensraum for the master race, etc, etc.

Then there’s that slightly odd bit where he didn’t actually win the election, but he did fairly well and it sort of counted as near enough, so he was declared Chancellor and allowed to take over everything in sight. It kind of seems like some sort of dodgy conspiracy, but it’s not obvious whose.

My theory, grounded on the above, is that by — what are we talking, 1933? — democracy had so completely, utterly, failed that nobody, least of all those actually running it, could stomach it carrying on one year longer. The only question was what to do instead? There were communists kicking around, but that wasn’t an attractive idea for the ruling class. And there was this Hitler dude, and while he had a bunch of somewhat fruitcake ideas, he seemed to have support, he was serious about changing things, and at least he wasn’t a commie. What else was there? Even the leading democratic politicians didn’t have any better idea than letting him have a go.

The Biology of Slavery

Monday, December 10th, 2012

Gregory Cochran discusses the biology of slavery — which is tied to the economics, of course:

Why did slavery pay? In what circumstances? In a Malthusian world, a laborer’s pay is just enough to allow him to raise two kids to adulthood. That’s all the average peasant makes, so that’s all an employer has to pay. Someone who raised slaves for labor would have to spend just as much or go out of business, in the long run.

So, in the Classical world, slaves mainly made economic sense (for the masters, natch) only if you could steal them, generally through wars of conquest. If Rome enslaved a 20-year Thracian farmer, they could get decades of work out of him without having to pay for his upbringing. All of this assumes that the Romans had special expertise in conquest and social control, and for the most part they did. Of course, if they picked the wrong Thracian, they could be sorry.

As the Roman Empire cut back on conquest, slaves cost more. Since the Empire had a fairly long period of internal peace and good government, living standards naturally dropped. Population growth far outpaced technical innovation, which was never a Roman strong point. Slavery seems to have become less and less important. Certainly there was no long-term, self-sustaining population of slaves.

Slavery in the American colonial era is a very different story. Although many slaves were imported from Africa, the slave population reproduced quite successfully. As C. Vann Woodward wrote: “So far as history reveals, no other slave society, whether of antiquity or modern times, has so much as sustained, much less greatly multiplied, its slave population by relying on natural increase.” In a mostly-Malthusian world, that is exactly what you would expect.

Before the War of the Rebellion, the natural growth of the slave population was about 25% per decade, greater than any country on Europe. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the slave health and nutrition was equivalent to that of white Americans, or that their lives were easy: but they had a higher standard of living than the typical peasant in a country with a stable population. The main underlying reason was that the US, in those days, was one of the least Malthusian place that has ever existed. The Amerindian population had collapsed (not before transmitting highly productive crops such as maize) and land was abundant. Food was abundant and labor was not.

Anomaly UK on Executions in North Korea

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

A roving bandit pillages. A stationary bandit rules. Thus, Anomaly UK looks on the bright side of the recent executions in North Korea:

North Korea’s government remains terribly bad. As I have written previously, I attribute this to the fact that, while hereditary, the government does not rest on the principle of hereditary right. Its political formula is built on a form of Marxism, and while the extra stability given to it by its ad-hoc monarchism has served to preserve it well beyond the normal lifespan of Marxist states, it doesn’t confer the full advantages of an explicitly hereditary system.

What I am interested in, when it comes to the guessing-game of looking at the politics of North Korea, is whether the Marxist-politburo “scientific” government or the early-modern Monarchical government has the upper hand. The first is bad, the latter good.

The story that has leaked out of North Korea is that Kim Chol has been executed for unfeelingly carrying on with high living during the mourning period for the late King, Kim Jong-Il, and further, that the young King, Kim Jong-Un, was so outraged that he demanded “no trace be left”. Therefore the unhappy vice-minister was stuck out in a field to be blown up with heavy weaponry.

That is seriously badass — we’re talking Tudor. The vital points are that (a) the offence was against the Royal Line, not the state or the politburo. And (b) the punishment was driven by personal anger, not a scientific principle of government. The Soviet Union was famously practical and humane about executing the deviationists, this is the opposite. Finally, it suggests that, if there is still some kind of internal power struggle going on — perhaps a continuation of some struggle over successsion — those with power are determined to win it absolutely. These three elements all point to better government for North Korea going forward.


So, the story coming out of North Korea is consistent with a hereditary ruler cementing his dominance over rival power centres within the régime. That is by no means the only explanation, so any optimism should be very tentative.

Diamond on Domestication

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Jared Diamond, in discussing animal domestication, claims that the local availability of species with the right qualities for domestication was key, Gregory Cochran notes, rather than anything special about the biology or culture of the humans living there:

In some cases that may be true: there aren’t many large mammals left in Australia, and they’re all marsupials anyway. Stupid marsupials. He claims that since Africans and Amerindians were happy to adopt Eurasian domesticated animals when they became available, it must be that that suitable local animals just didn’t exist. But that’s a non sequitur: making use of an already-domesticated species is not at all the same thing as the original act of domestication. That’s like equating using a cell phone with inventing one. He also says that people have had only mixed success in recent domestication attempts — but the big problem there is that a newly domesticated species doesn’t just have to be good, it has to be better than already-existing domestic animals.

Indian elephants, although not truly domesticated, are routinely tamed and used for work in Southern Asia. The locals in Sub-Saharan Africa seem never to have done this with African elephants — but it is possible. The Belgians, in the Congo, hired Indian mahouts to tame African elephants, with success. It’s still done in the Congo, on a very limited scale, and elephants have recently been tamed in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, such as the Okavango delta. Elephants have long generations, which makes true domestication difficult, but people have made domestication attempts with eland, African buffalo, and oryx. They’re all tameable, and eland have actually been domesticated to some extent. If a species is tameable, economically useful upon taming, and has a reasonable reproductive schedule, domestication is possible: selection for even a few generations can change their behavior enough to make dealing with them a lot easier.

As for the Americas — have you ever had a deer eating out of your hand? Bison seem too wild and scary to have ever been domesticated, but then I’m sure you would have said the same thing about the aurochs, the wild ancestor of cattle.

In fact, in my mind the real question is not why various peoples didn’t domesticate animals that we know were domesticable, but rather how anyone ever managed to domesticate the aurochs. At least twice. Imagine a longhorn on roids: they were big and aggressive, favorites in the Roman arena.

Speaking of deer eating out of your hand:

I remember some biology grad students telling the tale of some other students’ field research, where they snared birds to later tag them — only to find them being eaten by deer.

Deer don’t dislike meat; they’re just terrible hunters.


Friday, December 7th, 2012

Famous last stands, as at Thermopylae and the Alamo, are famous because last stands are so rare, Gregory Cochran notes:

So an army that routinely executed last stands — one that always refused to surrender, that kept fighting until eliminated by firepower or starvation — would  be anomalous.  It’s hard to imagine, but it’s easy to remember: that’s what the Imperial Japanese Army was like in World War Two.

In a typical battle, less than 2% of Japanese forces were taken prisoner. Of those that were, many had been knocked unconscious. Wounded Japanese soldiers would try to kill Allied medics: Japanese sailors would attack Americans trying to fish them out of the water. As a young American infantry officer who faced them in Guadalcanal and Burma said, “for sheer, bloody, hardened steel guts, the stocky and hard-muscled little Jap doughboy has it all over any of us.” George MacDonald Fraser told of a Japanese soldier he encountered in August of 1945, when they had utterly lost the war: ”the little bastard came howling out of a thicket near the Sittang, full of spite and fury. He was half-starved and near naked, and his only weapon was a bamboo stave, but he was in no mood to surrender.”

The Japanese usually lost those battles (after their attacks in the beginning of the war), losing something like ten times as many killed as their Western opponents, a ratio normally seen only in colonial wars. The Japanese relied on “courage and cold steel”, which simply wasn’t very effective. They simply did not grasp the dominance of artillery and automatic weapons in modern war — partly because they hadn’t fought in WWI (except for a small naval role), but, more importantly, because they didn’t want to understand. They’d had a chance to learn in the border conflicts with the Soviet Union in the late 30?s (Khalkin-Gol), but refused to do so.

In addition, Japanese heroism is seldom fully appreciated because they were such utter assholes, in their treatment of prisoners and of conquered nations — cannibalism, vivisection, the Rape of Nanking and the destruction of Manila, germ warfare experiments on prisoners… even the water cure, although now we’re in favor of that. Under the Japanese, Asia was a charnel house. Regardless, their courage was most unusual.

James Sterrett, Professional Wargamer

Friday, December 7th, 2012

James Sterrett is a professional wargamer — his title is Deputy Chief, Simulations Division, Digital Leader Development Center, at the Command & General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth — and he discusses three things gamers usually do not have to deal with:

First, we usually have far better knowledge of the situation than is possible for real armies; consider that one of the key pieces of information from ULTRA decrypts was the Axis order of battle in various theaters – simply knowing what units the Axis had was a major intelligence coup, but such information is routinely handed to players. Moreover, the scenario usually tells us what the friendly and enemy win conditions are, while those are often less clear in real life.

Second, in nearly every game, our forces do exactly what we tell them to do, exactly when we tell them to do it. In the real world, subordinate forces need time to conduct their own planning so they can carry out our orders, and they may not go about the task exactly as we envisioned. (The best game I’ve played for experiencing these challenges is Panther’s Command Ops series with the Command Delay set to the maximum value. I’ve also heard good things about Scourge of War in this regard but have not personally played it.)

Third, gamers are usually planning by themselves, which means they have to explain everything only to themselves and to the game. Military staffs deal with more information than one person can process; even a battalion staff is likely to be several dozen people. Getting this many people to pass information among themselves efficiently, and let alone coming up with a coherent plan that everybody understands, requires practice.

War in the East

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

The books generally say that biological warfare is ineffective, Gregory Cochran notes — but then they would say that, wouldn’t they?

There is reason to think it has worked, and it may have made a difference.

Once upon a time, it was spring 1942, and the Germans were on a roll. Timoshenko had attacked from an already-established bridgehead across the Donets (the Izium salient) with about 750,000 men. He made a bad choice, since the Germans had already begun concentrating their forces for a planned southern offensive. After some initial Soviet gains, the Germans brought in Luftwaffe reinforcements and achieved air superiority. The 1st Panzer army counterattacked and cut off much of the Russian forces, who lost a quarter of a million prisoners (according to Beevor), many dead and wounded, and most of their armor. There was a huge hole in the front, and the Germans advanced towards Stalingrad.

We know of course that this offensive eventually turned into a disaster in which the German Sixth Army was lost. But nobody knew that then. The Germans were moving forward with little to stop them: they were scary SOBs. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The Soviet leadership was frightened, enough so that they sent out a general backs-to-the-wall, no-retreat order that told the real scale of losses. That was the Soviet mood in the summer of 42.

That’s the historical background. Now for the clues. First, Ken Alibek was a bioweapons scientist back in the USSR. In his book, Biohazard, he tells how, as a student, he was given the assignment of explaining a mysterious pattern of tularemia epidemics back in the war. To him, it looked artificial, whereupon his instructor said something to the effect of “you never thought that, you never said that. Do you want a job?” Second, Antony Beevor mentions the mysteriously poor health of German troops at Stalingrad — well before being surrounded (p210-211). Third, the fact that there were large tularemia epidemics in the Soviet Union during the war — particularly in the ‘oblasts temporarily occupied by the Fascist invaders’, described in History and Incidence of Tularemia in the Soviet Union, by Robert Pollitzer.

Fourth, personal communications from a friend who once worked at Los Alamos. Back in the 90?s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a time when you could hire a whole team of decent ex-Soviet physicists for the price of a single American. My friend was having a drink with one of his Russian contractors, son of a famous ace, who started talking about how his dad had dropped tularemia here, here, and here near Leningrad (sketching it out on a napkin) during the Great Patriotic War. Not that many people spontaneously bring up stories like that in dinner conversation…

Fifth, the huge Soviet investment in biowarfare throughout the Cold War is a hint: they really, truly, believed in it, and what better reason could there be than decisive past successes? In much the same way, our lavish funding of the NSA strongly suggested that cryptanalysis and sigint must have paid off handsomely for the Allies in WWII — far more so than publicly acknowledged, until the revelations about Enigma in the 1970s and later.

We know that tularemia is an effective biological agent: many countries have worked with it, including the Soviet Union. If the Russians had had this capability in the summer of ’42 (and they had sufficient technology: basically just fermentation), it is hard to imagine them not using it. I mean, we’re talking about Stalin. You think he had moral qualms? But we too would have used germ warfare if our situation had been desperate.

In my picture, it probably wasn’t used in 1941 because of surprise, the fast-moving front, crushing German air superiority (after the initial airfield strikes), and winter. I think that the Soviets were probably hesitant in 1942, since detection would have probably led to German efforts along the same lines, doubly dangerous because Germany was the world leader in bacteriology in those days, and because Moscow was within easy reach of the Luftwaffe. Tularemia, though, is easy to misdiagnose, and the Germans didn’t have much experience with it. Moreover, Germans in Stalingrad never had a chance to be fully debriefed back in Germany. Risky in the long run, but you first have to survive in the short run.

Bruce Charlton has a bit to add.

A Punch in the Nose

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

In Afghan villages, noises that are soft to us are loud for farmers, Michael Yon says, and smells that we will not notice — such as laundry soap — are a punch in the nose for villagers.

Some of our guys call Afghans “stinkies,” and Afghans say similar things about us.

Their smell is feral. Ours is a corporate fireworks of soaps, skin products, insect repellants, weapon lubricants, and the foods that we eat. Our smell is strong. Hunters wash their clothes several times without soap, and sun-dry them to avoid odors. Some of our Special Forces did this during the Vietnam war, but today nobody seems to pay attention to the powerful odor trails that we leave.

In Afghanistan, military laundry is done corporately on the bases.  The troops hand in their laundry bags to workers from the Philippines, from Nepal or from Africa, and they wash it and dry it, including dryer sheets.  These workers all smell different.  In Thailand, the Thai say that many foreigners stink, and they can actually smell us.  (The Thai usually only tell you this if you are a good friend, and if the subject comes up.)

After you have been away from soldiers, and “normal” smells (for us), the collective odor of soldiers is striking.  It is important to keep in mind that you will often not be tracking just one quarry, but many, and the same applies for the enemy.  The smallest elements that we use will consist of two soldiers, but normally it will be at least a dozen.  So if you can track one soldier, imagine how easy it can be to track ten or twenty men. Their collective smell can be significant, and in some environments it will linger.  I can often smell an Arab, for example. Many of them use sandalwood, which is easy to smell.

Soldiers who dip snuff tobacco leave scent trails and spit trails, while smokers are an olfactory signal flare.  Smokers might as well walk and toss stink bombs.  Only one soldier needs to be detected to compromise a unit.  (Speaking of which, our confounded press machine no longer allows embedded writers to wear camouflage when out with combat units. During my last embed, I ignored this rule.  Who thinks up stuff like this?  Nobody with combat experience would come up with that nonsense.)

Deep inside, we are all hunters and trackers.  It is no exaggeration that a unit can be smelled from hundreds of meters away, even when you can see or hear no other trace.  People who live in the bush say that they can smell others from miles away, depending on variables such as weather and terrain.  Your nose will work better on a dark night.  I am not a psychologist, so will not venture to speculate why.  From the standpoint of physics, scents settle on a cool night.

One time in India, I was walking in the jungle searching for cannibals and I smelled elephants.  I thought that they were close, but I was near a stream, so it is possible that their scent was flowing down the stream.  Smells can flow like water, and so cool parts of the jungle can be good places to pick up scent trails.

Dog handlers learn these things, so they are great resources. Handlers do not like to work their dogs on hot days when smells float upwards, and the puppy gets tired and goes to sleep.  I was on a mission during a hot day in Afghanistan and a dog walked right by a bomb.  An EOD specialist spotted it after the dog missed it.  This happens a lot.  If there is a choice between ten trained dogs or one EOD specialist, I would take the EOD sergeant.  Dogs are fantastic at times, but only a nut would choose a dog over a trained EOD expert for spotting bombs.

(Note: One way to lose a dog team is to physically wear out the handler and the dog.  Go fast and far and they get worn out and stop. Or ambush the team and shoot the handler. Do not waste ammo on the dog. Without the handler, the dog is useless.  After one British handler was killed in Afghanistan for example, his dog died, apparently of a broken heart.  It is not you against the dog, but you against the handler.  The dog is his sensor pod.)

When I have been away from women for extended periods, the first whiff of a female crackles the senses.  It hits like a wave.  It is more than a smell.  You smell a stinky man, but you sense a woman.  Her presence ripples through the skin. You look around, and there she is.

Not to digress, but this creates issues downrange where men can go months without seeing a woman, and a lot of these men are in their twenties and they see females forms when looking at trees.  There is no doubt that if I have not seen a woman in a couple of months, I can sense her presence in a jungle.  But on a day-to-day basis, where you might encounter hundreds of women, this sense is dulled.

In some areas of the world, villagers can smell snakes, or detect their presence by the cries of birds.   One of my Collie dogs in Florida was a snake detector.  She had a special bark for “Snake! Snake! Snake!”  My grandfather grew up as a swamp boy in southern Georgia.  He could smell rattlers, and he was a terrible driver.

Floridians often know when a cat or a serpent is slipping by, from the sound made by a squawking Blue Jay.  When my Collie heard the Blue Jay’s warning, she would run to see.  When there was a snake, she would bark for me to come.  So the Blue Jay (who may have been tipped by some other creature) would scream a warning, then my dog would run to confirm, and she only barked for me when there really was a snake.  All of this happened in ten seconds.  Bio-web.

Some birds, such as Honeyguides, make a living by guiding people to honey.  The bio-webs are thick with interwoven triggers. This is all part of tracking.

Who has the sensor advantage in Afghanistan?  Circumstance is key, but on the whole, for mature wars such as Afghanistan, the sensor advantage belongs to local villagers and their bio-web, which includes clusters of villages.

We use watches to tell time.  They use calendars.  They have watched us for more than ten years.  We send young soldiers to Afghanistan who have hardly traveled beyond their home county just a year before.  Some of our young soldiers might have six months of training. The enemy has a dozen years of war experience.

Reinventing the fastest forgotten archery

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

The modern image of a pre-modern archer has him drawing an arrow from a quiver over his shoulder, but archers at war often planted their arrows in the dirt — or learned to keep them in hand while shooting, as modern archer Lars Andersen has done:

(Hat tip to Kalim Kassam, who knows I’m a bit of a hoplophile.)

The Hyborian Age

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

The flavor of Robert E. Howard’s pseudo-history is a lot more realistic than the picture of the human past academics preferred over the past few decades, Gregory Cochran says:

In Conan’s world, it’s never surprising to find a people that once mixed with some ancient prehuman race. Happens all the time. Until very recently, the vast majority of workers in human genetics and paleontology were sure that this never occurred — and only changed their minds when presented with evidence that was both strong (ancient DNA) and too mathematically sophisticated for them to understand or challenge (D-statistics).

Conan’s history was shaped by the occasional catastrophe. Most academics (particularly geologists) don’t like catastrophes, but they have grudgingly come to admit their importance — things like the Thera and Toba eruptions, or the K/T asteroid strike and the Permo-Triassic crisis.

Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, evolution seems to have run pretty briskly, but without any pronounced direction. Men devolved into ape-men when the environment pushed in that direction (Flores?) and shifted right back when the environment favored speech and tools. Culture shaped evolution, and evolution shaped culture. An endogamous caste of snake-worshiping priests evolved in a strange direction. Although their IQs were considerably higher than average, they remained surprisingly vulnerable to sword-bearing barbarians.

In this world, evolution could happen on a time scale of thousands of years, and there was no magic rule that ensured that the outcome would be the same in every group. It may not be PC to say it, but Cimmerians were smarter than Picts.

Above all, people in Conan’s world fought. They migrated: they invaded. There was war before, during, and after civilization. Völkerwanderungs were a dime a dozen. Conquerors spread. Sometimes they mixed with the locals, sometimes they replaced them — as when the once dominant Hyborians, overrun by Picts, vanished from the earth, leaving scarcely a trace of their blood in the veins of their conquerors. They must have been U5b.

To be fair, real physical anthropologists in Howard’s day thought that there had been significant population movements and replacements in Europe, judging from changes in skeletons and skulls that accompanied archeological shifts, as when people turned taller, heavier boned , and brachycephalic just as the Bell-Beaker artifacts show up. But those physical anthropologists lost out to people like Boas — liars.

Given the chance (sufficient lack of information), American anthropologists assumed that the Mayans were peaceful astronomers. Howard would have assumed that they were just another blood-drenched snake cult: who came closer?

Columbia’s Gang Scholar

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

The New York Times looks at Sudhir Venkatesh (Gang Leader for a Day). This is the passage that rang true to me:

In particular, Professor Williams was dubious about Professor Venkatesh’s tendency to explain his errors of judgment as mere naïveté.

The Three Little Pigs in the News

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

The Guardian‘s “Three Little Pigs” ad says a lot about modern news-making:

(Hat tip to Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics.)

Anyone Can be a Sniper

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Now, anyone can be a sniper:

Frankly, I’m surprised it took so long.

Combat Tracking

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

We track like the Taliban shoots, Michael Yon says — that is, badly:

Most of our soldiers cannot track anything short of a blood trail. Conversely, many Taliban can track, and they have killed our soldiers after tracking them down.

It does not take decades to learn how to fly a helicopter, or to shoot a rifle, nor to learn basic tracking. Just a month can make a dramatic difference. My five weeks of training left me confident that I could track the enemy nearly anywhere in southern Afghanistan. Good trackers can stay on the track of a single man, but often you are tracking ten or twenty, which for anyone with even basic tracking skills can be like tracking a herd of elephants.

Tracking ten Taliban in Southern Afghanistan should be child’s play for our soldiers, but after more than a decade of war, many still cannot do it. Every time that the Taliban ambush us, they leave fresh sign during their getaway. They might as well be dropping breadcrumbs. They are often close. Trackers can determine their cone of travel and bound ahead with helicopters. The Taliban try to bait pursuers into IED traps and lure them into area ambushes, but by bounding ahead, hunters can jump beyond the traps. After identifying a cone of travel, a commander reads the enemy and the terrain. Good commanders can identify problem areas and likely routes. Trackers used to do this on horseback.

Imagine an entire battalion — with 500 skilled infantry — all with at least that much training. Evading them would be like evading a pride of lions on foot.

The US Marines, the Dutch Marines and some other forces are forging combat hunting capability. The US Army remains stone blind, even though the Army previously considered tracking a basic skill, and Robert Rogers’ Third Rule for Rangers specifically addresses counter-tracking.

The Boy Scouts used to teach such skills.

My friend the witch doctor

Saturday, December 1st, 2012

A half century ago there was a lot of interesting anthropology about witchcraft, Henry Harpending notes, but starting in the 1960s anthropologists increasingly saw themselves as activists and advocates for people with whom they worked:

Witch doctors became “traditional healers”, prostitutes became “sex workers”, delinquents became “at risk youth”, and so on. While respect and manners are important, semantic cleansing has led to the loss of a lot of knowledge about human cultural diversity.

About a quarter century ago I was doing ethnography with a group of prosperous ranchers in the northern Kalahari who call themselves Herero. A young man in his mid-twenties named Kozondo was working for our group as a combination translator and mechanic and camp helper. He had graduated from secondary school, no small achievement in Botswana’s UK-derived system, and his english was quite fluent. One day I was interviewing a young mother when she used a (Herero) word I did not know. I asked Kozondo and he replied, with not a moment’s hesitation, “colostrum”.

On this trip it became quickly apparent that something was wrong with him. He was uneasy and distracted during the day and even more uncomfortable into the evening and night. There was an annoying group of giant eagle owls near our camp, and when they started hooting Kozondo would jump into the cab of a truck, close the windows, lock the doors, and spend the night cramped inside. When I sat him down to try to understand the problem he told me that he was being witched, that someone was trying to kill him. I gave him my familiar assurance that there was no such thing as witchcraft, that it was false superstition, and so on, but he would have none of it.

Only a handful of Herero shared my skepticism about witchcraft. People in the neighborhood as well as several other employees were concerned about Kozondo’s problem. They told me that he had to be taken to a well known local witch doctor. “Witch doctor” I said, “you all have been watching too many low budget movies. We call them traditional healers these days, not witch doctors”. They all, including Kozondo, would have none of it. “They are bad and very dangerous people, not healers” he said. It quickly became apparent that I was making a fool of myself trying to explain why “traditional healer” was a better way to talk than “witch doctor”. One of our group had some kind of anti-anxiety medicine. We convinced Kozondo to try one but it had no effect at all. Everyone agreed that he must consult the witch docter so we took him.

The local witch docter was well known in the area. We were camped at the edge of the Okavango delta so many of the locals were not Herero, who are a desert people, but indigenous people of the delta. Desert people refer to people of the delta as Goba. The Goba are reputed to be accomplished witch doctors and to have green thumbs growing marijuana but they are also regarded with some fear. After all, Herero say, they eat fish, as do crocodiles. If Kozondo could get help, we reasoned, it would be well worth the five buck fee (actually five Botswana Pula, close to five dollars). The witch doctor was a disheveled man, covered in grime, with either two or three teeth in total. He had a pouch with pieces of porcupine bone, twigs, and nuts. He tossed the contents of the pouch on the ground, studied the pattern, and made his diagnosis. He confirmed Kozondo’s self diagnosis of witchcraft and asked about whether Kozondo was owed money by anyone. This was an easy guess, of course, since Kozondo was well paid and prosperous. It became clear to Kozondo that his assailant must be a cousin who owed him a hundred Pula. When we asked about treatment, the witch doctor shook his head hopelessly and said that Kozondo would have to go to a specialist in Maun, the nearest large town, about 100 km away.

In for a penny, in for a pound, we thought. We also needed supplies, so one of our crew went off to take Kozondo to the specialist. Fifteen bucks poorer, he returned with supplies and with a cheerful relaxed Kozondo. The specialist had given him several different powders which he was to sprinkle in the campfire as evening approached. The powders repelled witches, and Kozondo would be safe. In addition he must be careful to wear sunglasses during the day, every day, since eyes are an easy invasion route for witchcraft and sunglasses protect them. The cure worked, and we had no further problems.

That evening we had something like a seminar with our employees and neighbors about witchcraft. Everyone except the Americans agreed that witchcraft was a terrible problem, that there was danger all around, and that it was vitally important to maintain amicable relations with others and to reject feelings of anger or jealousy in oneself. The way it works is like this: perhaps Greg falls and hurts himself, he knows it must be witchcraft, he discovers that I am seething with jealousy of his facility with words, so it was my witchcraft that made him fall. What is surprising is that I was completely unaware of having witched him so he bears me no ill will. I feel bad about his misfortune and do my best to get rid of my bad feelings because with them I am a danger to friends and family. Among Herero there is no such thing as an accident, there is no such thing as a natural death, witchcraft in some form is behind all of it. Did you have a gastrointestinal upset this morning? Clearly someone slipped some pink potion in the milk. Except for a few atheists there was no disagreement about this. Emotions get projected over vast distances so beware.

Even more interesting to us was the universal understanding that white people were not vulnerable to witchcraft and could neither feel it nor understand it. White people literally lack a crucial sense, or part of the brain. An upside, I was told, was that we did not face the dangers that locals faced. On the other hand our bad feelings could be projected so as good citizens we had to monitor carefull our own “hearts”.