‘Against the Clock’ by Derek Mahon

Magdalena Kay at the Dublin Review of Books:

Derek Mahon’s new volume of poems, Against the Clock, again proves him one of the greatest contemporary masters of poetic form. Preoccupied as he is with his advancing age and the “final deadline” looming in the future, the suppleness and subtleness of his flexible rhythms and rhymes keep the subject from becoming ponderous. Mahon knows all about the dark side of life, but has an extraordinary ability to set his style against it, as it were, so that his formal ingenuity provides a counterweight. It would be false to say that the darkness is vanquished ‑ it is not. A Mahon poem does not engage in illusionary antics or light-headed optimism. It knows the type of world in which it must reside. But its own energy carries it through with panache: “life is short and time, the great reminder, / closes the file of new poems in line / for the printer and binder” ‑ and these lines in parenthesis no less. Rhymes as unusual as “reminder” and “binder” abound in this volume, and display one of Mahon’s greatest talents: his ability to take so-called traditional forms and subject them to change and play. At this point in his career it seems effortless. His play with the units of poetic form is creative to the point of ingenuity ‑ but not quite, since Mahon sets himself against ingenuity for its own sake, or wordplay that is not anchored by deep feeling. And yet “play” is the right word for what this serious poet allows himself to do, and perhaps must do.

more here.

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James Baldwin’s Optimism

Gabrielle Bellot at The Paris Review:

“Every poet is an optimist,” Baldwin told Hugh Hebert at the Guardian when Beale Street was published. And yet, Baldwin continued, “you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all … If you’re black, and short, and ugly, and pop-eyed, and you think maybe you’re homosexual though you don’t know the word, and you’ve got to support a family because your father is dying—that’s a stacked deal.”

Baldwin’s glimmer of faith in the world he volcanically condemned was even more extraordinary because, though the deck was stacked against him, he resisted succumbing to despair. This is perhaps best exemplified in the resonant ending to one of his best-known fictions, the 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues,” in which Sonny—sent to jail when the story starts for dealing heroin and plagued by a toxic relationship with his brother (the narrator)—ends up having a gentle, loving moment with his sibling in a jazz bar. For a long time, Sonny had wanted to learn to play jazz rather than follow the more traditional route of going to school, as his brother had; the narrator, partly because he knew little about jazz, disapproved of Sonny’s musical inclinations and continued heroin use, which Sonny claimed helped him play.

more here.

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The Great Nadar

Emilie Bickerton at the LRB:

‘Like the knives of Chinese jugglers’, Charles Bataille said of his friend Félix Nadar, ‘turbulent, unexpected, terrifying’. Adam Begley’s biography describes a life lived so frenetically, it’s surprising it lasted so long – Nadar died at the age of ninety, in 1910. Yet he is remembered today primarily for the stillness and serenity of his photographic portraits of 19th-century Parisian luminaries. ‘You’ve done better than I’ve ever done,’ the physician Philippe Ricord wrote in the livre d’or, an autograph book Nadar kept for clients to sign in his studio at 35 boulevard des Capucines, ‘for I’ve always found it impossible to resemble myself from one day to the next.’ This is what Nadar was interested in, the search for what he called ‘an intimate resemblance’ – an instant not merely captured, but in a way that caught something essential in his subjects.

A few pictures have come to represent Nadar’s work: Charles Baudelaire, undated, but probably between 1855 and 1862, standing in his elegant dark coat, half-unbuttoned waistcoat and bow tie, hands in pockets, staring back at the camera – defiant perhaps, but with the mouth and the eyes, which Nadar called ‘two drops of coffee’, betraying some vulnerability.

more here.

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Wednesday Poem

Afternoon Tea

I look forward to offering,
Glimpses of my land,
To our foreign neighbors –
Our white-wide-eyed friends,
Laughing at jokes private to myself,
Knowing a couple of things,

Or more than they, do.

But when I am your wife,
Second half of your life,
I falter, I don’t know why,
But I cease to find a self of mine.
There stops being an ‘I’,
When I am your wife.

(I don’t, just don’t know, why)

Somehow I feel the need to snatch,
That expert opinion of the secret of my long beautiful hair,
From your superior mouth.
That anecdote,
The knowledge nugget,

That no one cares about, really.

And my India, is not your India,
And our India is different too.
You can narrate the dusty traffic,

And I can relate to lazy noons.

Why should we struggle, I wonder,
On the exact degree of which spice,
And at the end why do we just resign,
To a word of marriage as our excuse,​

Of all our bruised social contracts?

As your wife,
Is not that the same
For you,

As my husband?

There is no fault of you,
(or at least not completely)
My wife-ness needs a you,

But not the ‘I-ness’, true.

I witness a war of pronouns –
Where is the I, the we, the me, the you,
In the folk stories of that land,
In the blue eyes of friends,
In the polite smiles of guests?
Who does even India belong to,

To me, or all of you?

It seeps into an unthought,
Hovering in my non-senses,
Its sting is felt acutely,
In days as normal,
As happy, as exciting,
As today.
.
by Anam Akhter
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Enough With All the Innovation

John Patrick Leary in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

At Wayne State University, a commuter campus in Detroit where faculty members and students struggle to turn people out for events, the opening of the Innovation Hub last fall was a big deal. I have rarely seen so many people in one room on campus. Speakers gushed about the university’s “innovation ecosystem” and the “disruptive” start-ups sure to blossom in its “incubators.” Speakers paced the stage giving TED-style speeches rich in the soothing platitudes of business books. To nurture innovation, explained one, “you’ve got to have serendipity and creativity, and that’s when two plus two equals seven — apologies to the math department,” he added, chuckling at his own baffling joke. “You’ve heard the word ‘innovation’ a lot so far this evening,” said another, apologetically, briefly giving me hope that the term would finally be defined, or better yet, discarded. He continued: “You’re about to hear it a lot more.”

It was a success: Students were excited, the free food was unusually good, and the whole production could have probably paid for a couple of adjunct history professors. I left disheartened by it all: the unskeptical embrace of buzzwords, the unexamined enthusiasm for the marketplace as a wise referee of ideas. I also wondered whether the reason students were so enthusiastic about running a potentially lucrative start-up at school was that their Wayne State education wasn’t as affordable as it was two decades ago, when the state of Michigan accounted for two-thirds of the university’s operating budget, as opposed to one-third today. Private universities like Princeton, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, and Rice are locked in what some have called an “innovation arms race,”competing to open new entrepreneurial “labs,” “hubs,” and “makerspaces” to facilitate student and faculty start-ups. Public universities like mine are racing to keep up. The Innovation Hub is part of a major new initiative, explained university officials in a statement, to “prepare our students with innovation and entrepreneurship skills” while also leading “the revitalization of the Detroit region.”

More here.

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‘Reprogrammed’ stem cells implanted into patient with Parkinson’s disease

David Cyranoski in Nature:

Japanese neurosurgeons have implanted ‘reprogrammed’ stem cells into the brain of a patient with Parkinson’s disease for the first time. The condition is only the second for which a therapy has been trialled using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are developed by reprogramming the cells of body tissues such as skin so that they revert to an embryonic-like state, from which they can morph into other cell types. Scientists at Kyoto University use the technique to transform iPS cells into precursors to the neurons that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. A shortage of neurons producing dopamine in people with Parkinson’s disease can lead to tremors and difficulty walking.

In October, neurosurgeon Takayuki Kikuchi at Kyoto University Hospital implanted 2.4 million dopamine precursor cells into the brain of a patient in his 50s. In the three-hour procedure, Kikuchi’s team deposited the cells into 12 sites, known to be centres of dopamine activity. Dopamine precursor cells have been shown to improve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in monkeys. Stem-cell scientist Jun Takahashi and colleagues at Kyoto University derived the dopamine precursor cells from a stock of IPS cells stored at the university. These were developed by reprogramming skin cells taken from an anonymous donor. “The patient is doing well and there have been no major adverse reactions so far,” says Takahashi. The team will observe him for six months and, if no complications arise, will implant another 2.4 million dopamine precursor cells into his brain. The team plans to treat six more patients with Parkinson’s disease to test the technique’s safety and efficacy by the end of 2020.

More here.

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November 13, 2018

The Rivalry That Shaped Modern Egypt

Shadi Hamid in Foreign Affairs:

Seven years since the heady days of early 2011, when massive, electrifying protests brought down the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, the political atmosphere in Egypt has turned somber. In 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who had narrowly won Egypt’s first free presidential election the prior year. Since seizing power, Sisi has emptied the country of any real politics. His crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood has been particularly brutal: he has jailed tens of thousands of Brothers, and designated the group a terrorist organization. On the regional stage, Egypt has found itself relegated to second-tier status. What was once the center of the Arab world today feels like a ghost of its former self.

In this environment, it is easy to forget that for much of the twentieth century, Egypt was the most consequential battleground in the struggle for the soul of the new Arab state. Following the formal dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate, in 1924, new ideologies and approaches to governing competed to fill the vacuum. In the 1930s and 1940s, during Egypt’s so-called liberal era, secularists, socialists, and Islamists vied for legitimacy in a chaotic but relatively free political atmosphere. The freedom did not last. In 1952, a clandestine cohort of young military officers led by a man named Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and eventually ended what little was left of Egypt’s liberal age.

More here.

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The origins of Earth’s water are a big mystery—but we may have one more piece of the puzzle

Neel V. Patel in Popular Science:

In a new paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, Arizona State University researchers suggest that water on Earth originated from material brought by asteroids, assisted by some leftover gas strewn about after the sun’s formation.

This is certainly far from the first time people have suggested water as we know it (and drink) it has an extraterrestrial origin. Historically, the easiest explanation has been that all of Earth’s water came from asteroids that impacted the Earth during the early days of its 4.6 billion year life. Why? Water from Earth shares the same chemical signatures as water found in asteroids—specifically, the ratio of deuterium (a heavy hydrogen isotope) to normal hydrogen. And previous experiments have shown that, in spite of all the heat and energy created by these massively powerful collisions, that water could have been preserved as it found itself on the yet-to-be-blue planet.

Still, those theories have never been quite enough to fill in some of the other blind spots we have about water’s origin. The hydrogen found in Earth’s oceans isn’t necessarily the same sort of hydrogen present throughout the rest of the planet—samples collected closer to the Earth’s core possess exceedingly low amounts of deuterium, which seems to suggest this hydrogen didn’t come from asteroid impacts.

More here.

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A Hundred Years After the Armistice

Adam Hochschild in The New Yorker:

For millions of soldiers, the First World War meant unimaginable horror: artillery shells that could pulverize a human body into a thousand fragments; immense underground mine explosions that could do the same to hundreds of bodies; attacks by poison gas, tanks, flamethrowers. Shortly after 8 p.m. on November 7, 1918, however, French troops near the town of La Capelle saw something different. From the north, three large automobiles, with the black eagle of Imperial Germany on their sides, approached the front lines with their headlights on. Two German soldiers were perched on the running boards of the lead car, one waving a white flag, the other, with an unusually long silver bugle, blowing the call for ceasefire—a single high tone repeated in rapid succession four times, then four times again, with the last note lingering.

By prior agreement, the three German cars slowly made their way across the scarred and cratered no man’s land between the opposing armies. When they reached the French lines, they halted, the German bugler was replaced by a French one (his bugle is in a Paris museum today), and the German peace envoys continued their journey. At La Capelle, flashes lit up the night as the envoys were photographed by waiting press and newsreel cameramen, then transferred to French cars. Their route took them past houses, factories, barns, and churches reduced to charred rubble, fruit trees cut down and wells poisoned by retreating German troops.

More here.

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Art and The Rectangle

Amy Knight Powell at Cabinet Magazine:

Scholars have built a tight historical and corresponding conceptual link between the advent of the rectangular, Renaissance frame and the advent of linear perspective. It’s true that the renovation of Fra Angelico’s San Domenico altarpiece entailed both, but this was usually not the case. In 1480, about a century and a half after it was made, Giotto’s altarpiece for the Baroncelli Chapel in Santa Croce was renovated. Its original frame was removed and discarded, along with God the Father, who had occupied the gable above the heads of the Virgin and Christ. Spandrels decorated with vermilion cherubim were added, along with a new, rectangular frame that slices right through the curves of the cusped arches.

No new background in perspective was needed. To bring the painting up to date, it sufficed to change its shape—into a rectangle. This shape became so prevalent in Italy by the end of the fifteenth century that paintings came to be called quadri, even when they were round.

more here.

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The Dragon: Fear and Power

Tom Shippey at Literary Review:

‘A dragon is no idle fancy,’ wrote Tolkien in 1936, but ‘a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold’. The potency has only increased over the last eighty years. Dragons crowd the pages of modern fantasy; no one needs telling that Daenerys, the Mother of Dragons, holds a crucial place in George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones universe.

Tolkien nevertheless also declared that ‘dragons, real dragons … are actually rare’, counting ‘only two that are significant’. One has to say that even back in 1936 his vision was far too narrow. Dragons, as is proved to the hilt by Martin Arnold’s exceptionally wide-ranging and multicultural survey, are in fact ‘a global phenomenon’ and a cross-temporal one as well. They go as far back in time as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, and they turn up across Eurasia, from Ireland all the way to Japan. But how consistent is the dragon phenomenon? And what on earth can it mean about us?

more here.

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The Drawings of Klimt and Schiele

Michael Prodger at The New Statesman:

Although it was Klimt’s paintings that first impressed Schiele, especially a solo show in 1908, the two men didn’t meet until the following year when they established a strong rapport and exchanged drawings. The role of drawings occupied a different place in the art of each man. The majority of Klimt’s were composed with paintings in mind but he also made private works, often quickly executed, that deviated from the ideal of heady beauty that permeated his paintings. Sketches of his elderly mother or a nude pregnant woman past the first flush of youth shed stylisation for an unflinching intimacy. Sometimes he didn’t bother with limbs, while figures fill the sheet like columns, cropped at the head and feet. Schiele, though, took it all in.

The closeness of the two men lasted until death. Both died in 1918, Klimt at the beginning of the year from pneumonia following a stroke, Schiele at the end of the year, three days after the death of his wife Edith, then six months pregnant, both victims of the global flu pandemic.

more here.

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Tuesday Poem

Morning, Jamaica Plain

The swan is a white star drifting
across the onyx pond,
the phosphorescent neck
curving between the black altitudes of trees,
in the held silence of balance:
bird in the shroud and bunting of water.
On the roadway, drivers stare from their bright wild cars,
glassed inside their confused galaxies,
as this one white piece
falls into place, so silently,
this swan
gathering no speed at all,
in the low firmament of the pond.

by Suzanne E. Berger
from Smith College Poetry Center

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The politics of forgiveness

Peter Salmon in New Humanist:

On 24 July 1967, the poet Paul Celan gave a reading in Freiburg im Brisgau. At the time he was on a leave of absence from Saint-Anne psychiatric hospital, where he had been interned after suffering a nervous breakdown, in the midst of which he attempted suicide. At the reading was the philosopher Martin Heidegger. The day after the reading Celan was invited to a meeting with Heidegger at the philosopher’s hut. On arrival Celan signed the guestbook, then the two men went for a walk, which was curtailed by rain, and were driven back to the hut. After their brief meeting Celan returned to Saint-Anne’s. One week later, on 1 August, Celan wrote a poem about the encounter in the form of a single, oblique sentence named after the place where Heidegger’s hut stood, “Todtnauberg”. The title contained two words crucial to both the the poetry of Celan and the philosophy of Heidegger – berg meaning mountain, and todt, death.

What was discussed on their walk is not known – some have speculated they discussed their shared interest in botany, while other accounts suggest that Heidegger talked about his recent interview with the magazine Der Spiegel. But it is what was not discussed, between a Jewish poet who survived the Holocaust and a philosopher who was one of the highest-profile sympathisers of Nazism, that has continued to resonate for more than 50 years.

Paul Celan was born Paul Antschel (Celan is a reversal of the two syllables) in 1920, into a German-speaking Jewish family in Bukovina in Romania. His father, Leo, was a Zionist, who insisted his son learn Hebrew, while his mother, Fritzl, insisted, as a devotee of German literature, that German be the language spoken at home. After briefly studying medicine in Tours, France – a Jewish quota made it impossible for him to study in Romania – he returned to Bukovina in 1939. His journey to France had taken him through Berlin, where, from the train, he saw plumes of smoke rising the day after Kristallnacht. Under German occupation in Bukovina, Celan was interned in a ghetto, writing poetry and translating Shakespeare’s sonnets while being forced to gather and destroy Russian books. In a life shot through with historical symbolism, the significance of these simultaneous acts seems terrifyingly apt.

More here.

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Do gut bacteria make a second home in our brains?

Kelly Servick in Science:

We know the menagerie of microbes in the gut has powerful effects on our health. Could some of these same bacteria be making a home in our brains? A poster presented here this week at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience drew attention with high-resolution microscope images of bacteria apparently penetrating and inhabiting the cells of healthy human brains. The work is preliminary, and its authors are careful to note that their tissue samples, collected from cadavers, could have been contaminated. But to many passersby in the exhibit hall, the possibility that bacteria could directly influence processes in the brain—including, perhaps, the course of neurological disease—was exhilarating. “This is the hit of the week,” said neuroscientist Ronald McGregor of the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the work. “It’s like a whole new molecular factory [in the brain] with its own needs. … This is mind-blowing.”

The brain is a protected environment, partially walled off from the contents of the bloodstream by a network of cells that surround its blood vessels. Bacteria and viruses that manage to penetrate this blood-brain barrier can cause life-threatening inflammation. Some research has suggested distant microbes—those living in our gut—might affect mood and behavior and even the risk of neurological disease, but by indirect means. For example, a disruption in the balance of gut microbiomes could increase the production of a rogue protein that may cause Parkinson’s disease if it travels up the nerve connecting the gut to the brain. Talking hoarsely above the din of the exhibit hall on Tuesday evening, neuroanatomist Rosalinda Roberts of The University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB), told attendees about a tentative finding that, if true, suggests an unexpectedly intimate relationship between microbes and the brain.

More here.

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November 12, 2018

Game of Thrones and the US Midterms

by Leanne Ogasawara

In the great reality show that is American Politics, this election did not disappoint. It had hope, followed by heartbreak (Beto, Gillum). And there was fear –in the form of an “invading caravan,” with whispers of Russian hackers. It had titanic drama, whipped up to a torrid frenzy by the media, in love with the sound of their own voice. 

And tragically, it was darkened by unspeakable evil in Pittsburg. 

In the bittersweet but predictable final episode, a scrappy blue army retook the House; while fate seemed to set up an insurmountable wall in the Senate, resulting in a few more red bricks cemented into place. And before we even had time to exhale a single sigh of relief and stagger to bed with the appropriate mixture of whiskey and champagne, the pundits begin punditing –to the sound of another mass shooting (this time in my home town): Let the Games BEGIN!! House Pelosi meets House McConnell; while House Trump recognizes its own limits and the value of constructive compromise to get things done.

Yeah, not so much.

Are the Founding Fathers, spinning wildly in their graves as they regret eschewing a parliamentary form of government, wondering whether this Republic is about to deal itself a knockout blow? Or are they watching, horrified? Horrified –but entertained– by this latest twist in our very own homegrown Game of Thrones? Read more »

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Why We Should Be In the Streets

by Akim Reinhardt

Credit, CBS NewsDonald Trump is not a fascist. He’s far too stupid to be a fascist, or to coherently advocate for any complex national political doctrine, evil or otherwise. He is, however, a would-be tin pot dictator. And his largely failed but still very dangerous attempts to establish himself as a right wing autocrat need to be countered, not just by opposition politicians and the press, but also by responsible citizens.

It has been the case for a while now that the proper reaction to Trump’s presidency is frequent public protest. As responsible citizens, we need to engage in not just one or two massive protests per year, but rather in a steady diet of public protests that sends a strong, clear message to the body politic: We the people reject Donald Trump’s would be totalitarianism. That while his very limited abilities and profound incompetence may prove to be our saving grace, it is not enough to quietly accept his likely ultimate and embarrassing failure as reasonable consolation. Instead we must make certain that the power elite in government, corporations, and the media understand our collective revulsion at and resistance to Trump’s failing autocracy. Here are the reasons why. Read more »

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Monday Poem

“In erratic times one cannot be too attentive, too
ready to stand or duck.”
—A. Skutočné

Politics

what’s real depends upon where a thing lands—
how far along it is from ultraviolet to infrared
(from invisible to invisible), but on the
spectrum of real, it might be said

if it’s a matter of life-or-death I’m inclined to think
whatever’s coming at me now is most real,
so I move, I snap to

but if, instead, I’m lost in the contours
of the coming bumper that will ice me,
lost in chiaroscuro,
lost in its seductive curves,
lost in the way fenders sleek and silver slice air,
lost in the hood’s patina,
in the way its lacquered finish
creates a bright steel mood,
if I’m gone in its pricey logo
cast in chrome
……………. …… — if at that moment
my real is just beauty, then realities collide,
aesthetics gives way to physics (the most
essential real of the moment) and the
reality of beauty dies

then too, but late, the meaning of distraction
would’ve suddenly been real, suggesting a deeper take
on the meaning of lies

joy and sorrow
are both real

some say money is real
and it is, the way it wrenches things—

anything with that much clout,
anything that so shapes the mind of the world,
anything that so pummels and rips the fabric of love
is surely real

but what’s real is ephemeral as mist:
thin       thick       opaque      divine
depending upon where and when it lands
on the spectrum of real

real is different
at different times

Jim Culleny
11/6/18

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An American Tries To Understand Armistice Day

by Michael Liss

This past Sunday, November 11, marked the Centennial of Armistice Day, the European commemoration of the agreement to end World War I. Representatives from more than 60 countries attended carefully choreographed ceremonies to honor the sacrifice of those who fought.

The Europeans take the Great War seriously. Americans really don’t. It just doesn’t feel like our war. To us, it’s an old chest filled with musty, tattered maps and the remains of broken monarchies and shattered ambitions. Even the early film footage, jerky and grainy in black and white, looks more like a silent movie than something real. We know we participated, and naturally we were heroic. Our boys saved the Allied powers from the Huns, all the while singing “Over There” and wooing the local pulchritude. It’s what we broad-shouldered, brave, optimistic, can-do Americans do.

But, if you want to contextualize our actual contribution, consider the following:

The United States committed 2.8 million servicemen to the war, and suffered 53,402 killed in action, 63,114 deaths from disease and other causes, and about 205,000 wounded. On an absolute level, that’s a lot of lives. But, by contrast, in just one extended, insane battle, the Europeans fought the Somme Offensive, with more than 3 million men engaged and 1 million casualties. Then there was Gallipoli, the infamous, disastrous push by then-First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill in the Dardanelles, which provided the Ottoman Empire with its last meaningful military victory, and included a horrific sacrifice by ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand combined forces) and half a million casualties. And Verdun (between the French and the Germans), which lasted close to 11 months in 1916, and yielded nearly 700,000 casualties and more than 300,000 dead. And Passchendaele (3rd Battle of Ypres, Flanders Fields), between Great Britain, France, Belgium and Germany, in July to November 1917, in which the dead and wounded may have been as high as 700,000. And Operation Michael, the last major German offensive in the West (Germany, the UK, France, and, finally, the United States), which had almost 500,000 casualties. That, of course, skips every battle between the Germans and the Russians. Read more »

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