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When modern wars borrow ancient buildings

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog


Recently government troops in Syria’s bloody civil war retook the famed crusader castle Crak des Chevaliers from rebel soldiers. It’s not the first ancient fortification to have played a tactical role in the conflict: Last year The Washington Post reported that the citadel in the Syrian city of Aleppo, once a major tourist attraction as a UNESCO world heritage site, has turned into a shooting blind for regime snipers, who fire through the arrow slits in its walls.

We wondered whether there are other examples of ancient buildings being used for defensive purposes in modern wars and queried three experts in military history: Paul Dover at Kennesaw State University, Clifford Rogers at the United States Military Academy, and Geoffrey Parker at Ohio State University. By e-mail, they explained that there is indeed precedent for what’s happening in Syria, and offered these four 20th century examples: the Chateau de Coucy, which harbored German soldiers in World War I; the Alcazar of Toledo, Spain, which was the center of a pivotal siege at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War; the abbey in Monte Cassino, Italy, whose ruins provided cover for German soldiers in World War II; and Malbork Castle in Poland, which was destroyed at the end of World War II in last-ditch, heavy fighting between the Germans and the Russians.


Though there’s a degree of horror in seeing what should be historical treasures being turned back into the setting for war, it’s also remarkable to realize that stone castles built centuries ago to withstand battering rams can still be tactically useful against modern weapons.

Globe File Photo/2008

Breathe like a tuba player

If you take breathing for granted, you’re likely not a tuba player. In the last week of March, McSweeney’s ran an article by novelist Elizabeth Eshelman about the perils of returning to play the tuba after 10 years away from the instrument—the latest in a series called “I Like Big Brass and I Cannot Lie: Confessions from the Tuba World.” Among other things, she reveals a number of details about how to breathe like a tuba professional.

Eshelman reports that the two instruments that require the most air to play are the tuba (obviously) and the flute (less obviously). In a band, she says, the members of a tuba section get together beforehand and designate where, in a piece of music, each musician is permitted to breathe, with the breathing breaks staggered so that the audience doesn’t notice a drop in sound. Eshelman writes that a typical exchange between tubists in a band begins, “Hi, I’m Pat. Do you want to breathe on the bar line or not on the bar line?”

Finally, she explains this secret of tuba breathing: Tubists inhale near their instruments’ mouthpieces, which lets them recycle the carbon dioxide they’ve just exhaled in the previous breath. Recycling carbon dioxide staves off hyperventilation, which occurs when your body has too much oxygen and not enough carbon dioxide. It’s the kind of fascinating detail that begins to explain how, for practitioners, the ungainly instrument grows on you over time.


© Retna Ltd.

Origins of a pop paradise

Sweden is relatively small, and it’s objectively cold and dark. Yet Swedes still manage to churn out many of the big, sunshiny songs that set the world dancing—be they from headlining Swedish bands like ABBA and Ace of Base, or the Swedish producers behind mega-hits like the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.”

How did it become such an outsized pop player? A recent Pacific Standard piece by journalist Whet Moser offers an answer: In the 1940s, the Swedish government invested in municipal schools of music around the country, cultivating a wide base of musical talent, and establishing the conditions for dramatic musical innovation in the years to come.

Moser explains that the music schools actually came from a conservative impulse—in the 1940s Swedish church leaders were alarmed by the popularity of degenerate dance music originating in America (from artists like Glen Miller and Benny Goodman) and wanted to create a countervailing music culture back home. So they established free music schools around the country, with an emphasis on classical composition. By the 1980s and 1990s, the municipal schools had branched out to teach the basics of rock and pop. Besides providing nearly universal music education, the schools boosted Sweden’s music ecosystem: They provided teaching jobs for musicians, subsidized practice space, and created a dense network of musicians who could collaborate—the exact conditions that business school professors cite as key to innovation.

Today, many of the biggest names in pop music work with Swedish producers, including Pink, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, and Christina Aguilera. The country’s pop influence is vast—and a good example of how, if you can’t stop the spread of American culture, you might as well influence the way it sounds.


Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.