30 July 2006

Mussolini Mystery

While researching my forthcoming book Chronicle of War, I was rereading the last few chapters of Christopher Hibbert's biography of the Italian dictator. I finished thinking that there was a good television docu-drama in this, or even a film, but also wondering about what had happened to the documents Mussolini was described as having selected from his archives. I wondered if his death had not been a summary execution by communists, but a murder by one of the Allies' intelligence services. Well, an Internet search today revealed my suspicions have been shared by others. Indeed, Italy's best television channel, RAI Tre, has produced a documentary exploring such suspicions. An Italian journalist, Luciano Garibaldi, has also written about his own investigations. Of course, Italy is hardly short of controversial conspiracy theories, often involving foreign intelligence organizations. And in this document, authored by one of the producers of the RAI Tre documentary, there's no mention of intelligence activities in Mussolini's death. I'll probably look into this further when I have more time.

28 July 2006

Some talk of Arachosia

Operation Mountain Thrust in southeastern Afghanistan was making a lot of headlines in the British press before the Israeli assaults on Hezbollah shoved another Middle-Eastern crisis into the foreground. As the casualties mounted, I began wondering about the more distant military history of this area of Afghanistan. In the time of Alexander the Great, the region was known as Arachosia. This region featured in the civil wars following the accession of Darius the Great to the rule of Persia in the 6th century BC. You can read a translation of an original description, all we have about this conflict, under the heading "Fighting in Arachosia" here. A contingent of Arachosians fought on the left wing of the Persian army at the battle of Gaugamela, where they attempted with the rest of their division to outflank Alexander's command. After Alexander's conquest of Central Asia, the Arachosians largely vanish from the foreground of the historial stage. Much of pre-13th-century Central Asian history seems obscure from the vantage point of this English-language reader.

27 July 2006

Free Market Military

"Security contractor" is a term I hadn't read before the occupation of Iraq in 2003 by American armed forces. Of course, that's because it's a euphemism for the more morally loaded word "mercenary". In my very first job, my manager used to stop when he was bored to give me lectures about historical or political subjects, and I vividly remember one where he said government had to keep some things under its control, such as the armed forces. I had already read about the condottieri, so I knew there were historical examples of alternatives to the "nationalized" army. I wasn't surprised, therefore, to learn that some military functions were being privatized by the American government.
Throughout history, the reputation of mercenaries has never been high. However, they were common in warfare until the nineteenth century. For historically minded Americans, mercenaries most famously took the form of the Revolutionary War's Hessians, men perceived as agents of oppression. One of the best-known mercenary companies operating in Iraq is Blackwater, although not for reasons they would appreciate. They have become the subject of a lawsuit connected with this infamous attack in Fallujah in March 2004. Currently, there's an article in a series on the company and the lawsuit running in the Virginian-Pilot online, but in my experience things don't stay long on the Virginian-Pilot's web site, so get there quick.

26 July 2006

Hot Weather Matters

The heat wave in London in the past week has distracted me from plans to write about Afghanistan, as my computers threaten to overheat if I spend too long surfing in addition to my other work. However, the weather reminds me of the role heat sometimes plays in warfare. One of the first battles that I can recall reading about in which the hot weather was significant was Monmouth Court House on 28 June 1778. The weather was certainly warm as this account makes clear. In 1976, an historian wrote a revisionist book, saying that General Charles Lee was unfairly maligned for his actions in the battle. You can find out more about the battle via the links here.

24 July 2006

Last Post at Ypres

Today is the seventy-ninth anniversary of the dedication of the Menin Gate in 1927. A ceremony has been conducted here almost every day since, the only exceptions being during Nazi occupation.

Yasukuni Visitors

Japan, German, and Italy all to a greater or lesser degree have had to cope with the consequences of defeat in the Second World War, and the discrediting of the political systems that led them into the conflict. Not one of these countries has successfully solved the problem of how to integrate the past into today's politics, but perhaps the Japanese have had the most problems. It seems Emperor Hirohito, the only Axis head of state to survive the war, had qualms about visiting the Yasukuni shrine after 1978, not shared by the current Japanese prime minister, Koizumi Junichiro.

22 July 2006

Salamanca Day

Today is the 194th anniversay of the battle of Salamanca. This battle is the one that established the reputation of the Duke of Wellington among the ranks of Great Commanders. In bygone years, titles covering the Napoleonic Wars were steady sellers. Certainly the Trafalgar bicentenary was celebrated with enthusiasm by my former employers. Now that I'm out of the business, though, I wonder if it has the same cachet? It may just be my interests lie elsewhere, but the Napoleonic Wars seem to have become a secret enthusiasm, missing the far greater publicity given to the American Civil War and the two World Wars, although no doubt the French still celebrate the Napoleonic era with proper gusto.

20 July 2006

Hero Dog Fraud?

The Imperial War Museum finds one of its exhibits has been challenged in an SAS man's memoirs. It seems the SAS man made up a story about a dog making parachute jumps, in order to keep the canine conscript from being returned to his owners. Quentin Hughes, the SAS man, died in 2004, but wrote a memoir Who Cares Who Wins in 1998. I haven't been able to establish whether it was ever actually published, and word of the hoax seems to have reached the newspapers via a "friend and colleague" named Mickey King.

19 July 2006

Understanding the Situation

The U.S. Army is now looking at Missouri during the Civil War to train platoon commanders for fighting the insurgents in Iraq. However, another American experience may be equally appropriate to the insurgency. Furthermore, from the insurgents' point of view, the war is a resistance war, a war of liberation against an occupying invader. To understand them, and to understand what their weaknesses are, it's probably worthwhile studying some of the resistance campaigns during World War II, especially in Yugoslavia and Greece, where two opposing ideologies found themselves fighting a common enemy, in the way Islamists work with secular Ba'athists in Iraq today.

18 July 2006

American Forces Network on the BBC

Radio 4 (known to me as the Home Service of the BBC) has broadcast a couple of interesting programs covering radio broadcasts to American forces in Western Europe during 1943-5. You can listen again here.

War Tourism Winners and Losers

It seems that there is money in having the right kind of war on your doorstep, as Maryland mobilizes its impressive American Civil War legacy to attract the out-of-state dollar. Let's hope there is some spinoff to help struggling writers and publishers who cover the same sort of legacy. But it does beg the question of why some wars do better than others when it comes to posterity? American Revolutionary War books don't sell in anything like the same numbers as Civil War books. The First World War, most of the time, languishes in the shadow of the Second, yet much of the current crisis in the Middle East owes its origins to the former.