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Is This an Actium Moment?

Two U.S. warships cruised through the Taiwan Strait on Sunday, August 28, in international waters between Taiwan and mainland China. Although the U.S. Navy described it as routine, it was anything but ordinary. It was the first such voyage since U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan earlier this month. An angry China responded to her trip by launching missiles over Taiwan and engaging in military exercises. China claims the Taiwan Strait as an internal waterway. The voyage of the two warships shows that the U.S. doesn’t accept that assertion, but it hardly ends the matter.

Taiwan is a liberal democracy under threat of invasion by a communist dictatorship. A key player in the microchip industry, Taiwan is central to the world economy, and located as it is in the First Island Chain off China’s coast, it is vital strategically.

Tension over Taiwan is nothing new but recent trends make it ever more troubling. China’s rise to economic superpower status, its military buildup over the last twenty years, its insistence under Xi Jinping that it will bring Taiwan under Chinese rule and soon, may all be signposts to war. China’s alignment with Russia and Iran similarly turns the compass needle in a disturbing direction. Meanwhile, American resolve, so badly bruised by the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, is being tested in Ukraine by Russia’s invasion.

Many clashes of empire have taken a decisive turn at sea. History records such battles as Salamis, between Greeks and the Persian Empire, in 480 B.C.; Red Cliffs, between an alliance of southern Chinese warlords and a northern warlord, in winter 208/209; the Battle of the Masts, between the Arab Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire, in 654; Lepanto, between the Christian Holy League and the Ottoman Empire in 1571; Trafalgar, between the British and the French and Spanish alliance in 1805; Tsushima, between Japan and Russia in 1905; and Midway, between Japan and the United States, in 1942. But the one that may be richest in lessons for Taiwan is the Battle of Actium.

Actium took place on September 2, 31 BC. That date about 2050 years ago decided the future of the Mediterranean world for the next four centuries. But the thing about the Battle of Actium, as it is called, is that it was half-won before a single ship was launched.

At Actium, two indomitable rivals faced off for control of the Roman Empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Euphrates. Octavian controlled the Roman West. Mark Antony controlled the Roman East, with the help of his chief ally and lover, Cleopatra, queen of Egypt.

Both sides built great navies, but Antony and Cleopatra played it safe. Octavian launched a daring, surprise attack behind enemy lines on their key supply base. The raiders captured the base and turned it into a center for raiding Antony and Cleopatra’s shipping and slowing the flow of supplies to a trickle. By the time of the battle of Actium six months later, Antony and Cleopatra’s navy had been cut to about half its size by hunger, disease, and desertion. The best they could do at Actium was to fight their way out with about a third of their remaining ships. It was a total defeat, all but ending the war.

At Actium, the set-up was everything. So, it often is in war, and so it may be with Taiwan. Whoever prepares better for what lies ahead is likely to win. Will China prepare the field to assure a victory? Or Will Taiwan and its supporters in the United States, Taiwan, Australia, and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific, make better plans?

Nancy Pelosi isn’t Cleopatra, Joe Biden isn’t Mark Antony, and Xi Jinping isn’t Octavian. It’s a good thing, too, because they all know better than the Romans that negotiations are preferable to missiles. But one thing that they can learn from the Romans is this: if you want peace, prepare war.

With China having engaged in a massive military buildup, the United States needs to reinvest in its navy, whose numbers are currently being cut. Taiwan needs to make its military more mobile and resilient, while beefing up conscription, which is currently highly limited.

All parties would do well to prepare for the unexpected. It was surprise that paved the road to victory on that September day in Greece long ago.  The time to prevent an Actium moment is now.

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Slowing Down

It’s harder to write a short letter than a long one. It’s harder to drive slowly in a sports car than to drive fast. And it’s harder to swim slowly than to swim fast. By swimming slowly, I don’t mean acquiring the fitness and determination to win a race. I mean simply swimming slowly. And that’s difficult to do, at least that’s what I discovered.

This summer I decided to go back to an old project of nailing the freestyle. I could swim the breaststroke and not get tired, I could swim the backstroke with relative ease, but when I tried freestyle, things fell apart. I’d taken lessons over the years – boy, had I ever. I had made progress, but somehow, I’d never put it together.

This summer has been different. With more lessons and practice nearly every day, I’ve come closer to my goal.

I had all the pieces, but I had to put them together. Slowly, the stroke became longer, more elegant, and more relaxed. But the most difficult thing, I found, was slowing down. When I got into the water, my instinct was to fight. But the pool isn’t a boxing ring.

When I looked up “how to swim freestyle slowly” on the Internet, the first response I found was “swim slowly.” That’s well meant, I’m sure, but not very helpful. It’s like telling a nervous person: “just relax!” It’s not absence of desire that kept me from slowing down; it’s fear. I was afraid of sinking if I stopped moving, like a shark that needs to swim constantly to breathe and to stay alive.

But I won’t sink. I had done enough kick drills with arms extended in front of me to know that. Yet my head knew but my body wouldn’t listen. What’s relaxing with the breaststroke became exhausting with the freestyle.

One day my coach went over the butterfly stroke with me or, rather, reviewed it, because I had learned butterfly years ago; I just hadn’t used it.  After watching me swim a length, she said that it looks good except that I was stroking “Barry style” – that is, too fast. And she proceeded to show me how I appeared by imitating my stroke with her arms. She looked like a terrified chimpanzee scurrying up a tree or a video on fast forward. Embarrassing, but it made the point. I tried again, and this time it was better: I managed a slower, easier stroke. A good start, but it would take many repetitions for me to reach optimum speed – that is, minimum speed.

I find myself wondering if my difficulty in slowing down my swimming stroke is a metaphor. We Type A personalities seem always to be in a hurry.

Swimming slowly is about letting go. It’s about letting your body be long, from the tip of your toes to your fingers, and from your feet to your head. It’s about luxuriating in your length and making the time to reach for the wall of the pool. It’s about trusting that the water will hold you up if you let it.

That in turn means trusting in a power greater than you in one whose greatness lies in its fluidity. Water won’t be pinned down. A swimmer can thrive in it, but first he needs to learn its ways.

There’s a lesson there about life and fate and maybe even about the divine. We can thrive in life, but only if we know our limitations and only if we trust a power greater than us.

And so, I began to improve. Further searches on the Internet yielded some helpful sites and videos. I learned from watching some of the other swimmers and from taking in their long, leisurely arm strokes. Most of all, I learned from some first-rate coaches. Thank you.

I feel good after today’s practice in the pool. Winning the race; well, most of us want to do that, but it’s a different accomplishment that is making me happy now. Who would have ever thought that a slower swimming stroke would be something to celebrate?

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Fallen Stones, Rising Hopes

In Jerusalem, at the foot of the western wall of the Temple Mount — where the Second Temple stood, near its southern corner, you can see a jumble of large stones, each weighing 2-3 tons. Roman soldiers threw them down when they destroyed buildings on the Mount in the year 70. The Romans burned down the Temple as part of the sack of Jerusalem, the Jewish capital city that had held out under siege for five months. It was the end of the Great Jewish Revolt (66-70).


I thought of these stones at the approach of Tisha b’Av, which marks the date of the destruction of the Temple on the ninth day of the month of Av (roughly August) in the year 70 – Tisha b’Av in Hebrew. This year the date is observed from sundown, August 6 to nightfall, August 7. It’s a day of fasting and prayer. Tradition holds that the First Temple was also destroyed on the same day, and the calendar includes a long list of tragedies that befell the Jewish people on that day, including the expulsion from Spain in 1492. All in all, Tisha b’Av is the saddest day of the Jewish calendar.


Yet the destruction of the Temple is a sign not just of sadness but also of resilience. More remarkable than the fallen stones of the year 70 is the hope that rose in their place. Consider Johanan ben Zakkai, a rabbi who led an important school in Jerusalem while the Temple was standing. He was present in the city during the siege, and he pressed for peace with the Romans, but he went unheeded. He decided to leave the city. Jewish texts say that he was smuggled out in a coffin, since the Romans would let no one out of Jerusalem except to bury the dead. Rabbi Johanan was brought before the Roman commander. He granted the rabbi’s request to set up a school at Yavneh, on what is today Israel’s coastal plain.


Whether that tale is true or not, it is certain that Rabbi Johanan either set up or expanded an academy at Yavneh. It played a crucial role in saving Judaism. The rabbis there came up with a set of principles and practices that made it possible for Jews to serve God even without the Temple by engaging in prayer rather than animal sacrifice. They also emphasized the process of vigorous debate that resulted in the Mishnah about a century later. That codification of Jewish oral law, which supplements the five Books of Moses, later gave rise to the commentaries known as the Talmud. Together, Mishnah and Talmud laid the foundation for mainstream Judaism.


Others, to be sure, reacted to the fall of the Temple differently. To Romans, it was a symbol of success. So, in Rome, the Arch of Titus honors the victorious Roman commander at Jerusalem and later emperor. The arch features an image of Roman soldiers carrying loot taken from the Temple in a triumphal parade. You can still see it in Rome today.


To Christians, the fall of the Temple was both a disaster and a sign of the way forward. For Christians, Jesus replaced the Temple. In the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians (probably written by a disciple of the apostle), the Christian community is described as a holy temple in the Lord, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone (Eph. 2:19-22). It’s understandable that when Rome’s first Christian emperor, Constantine (r. 306-337), rebuilt Jerusalem as a Christian city, he did not rebuild the Temple. Rather, he made the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, thought to be the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, the center of his new Jerusalem.


As terrible a blow as the fall of the Temple was, and as much as it causes mourning, it also gives ground for hope. The Talmud tells the story of a group of rabbis visiting the ruins of Jerusalem. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox coming out of the Holy of Holies. They all started crying except for Rabbi Akiva, who laughed. When the other rabbis asked him what he could possibly find funny there, Rabbi Akiva replied as follows. One prophecy said that the great city of Jerusalem would be so ruined one day that it would be plowed like a field and the Temple Mount would be like a forest.  But another prophecy, linked to the first, said that old men and women would sit in the streets of Jerusalem yet. Rabbi Akiva said that now that he had seen a fox – a forest creature – on the Temple Mount, he was confident that the second prophecy would be fulfilled as well. The other rabbis thanked him for offering them comfort.


It was the genius of the rabbis to compile the Mishnah and, in due course, the Talmud that preserved the Jewish People even in the absence of the Temple, of the priesthood, of Jerusalem, and eventually of Judea. And it was the courage of the Jewish people not to despair. The stones of Jerusalem are not just signs of wailing but of inspiration.





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Omens of War from Actium to Ukraine

As early as December 2021, the White House released intelligence findings that a possible invasion was looming. Two weeks before Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February, foreign diplomats began pulling out of Kyiv. The world took these as omens of war.

(Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

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As Russia blasts its way through Eastern Ukraine via artillery, it is worth remembering that there is a more elegant and efficient way to wage war, and one that often spares life and property, namely, the indirect approach. Consider the Battle of Hattin, for example.