28 September 2006

Studying War

I always enjoy finding college course descriptions with reading lists on the Internet. Professor Mark Grimsley has put one of his own on his Web site. You can also find the MIT course on War & American Society. The latter is more a cultural course than a military course, but the selection of films required for viewing represent an interesting cross-section of different approaches to explaining war.

27 September 2006

The American Way of War

Major General John Batiste was interviewed by the Rochester City-News. In the interview, he says: "we need to mobilize this country for a protracted war. This country has never been mobilized. We are fat, dumb, and happy."

What I find myself wondering is, in how many American wars was the country actually mobilized? The Revolutionary War, maybe. I don't think the War of 1812 saw the mobilization of America. Mexican War? Don't think so. Spanish-American War? Definitely not. Korea and Vietnam? Nope. The American Civil War, and the World Wars were the only conflicts where I'm confident in asserting that the United States mobilized its war-making powers. The rest were certainly paid for by Congressional appropriations, but that's not the same thing as General Batiste is talking about.

25 September 2006

Problems with Military History

I just noticed this post at Civil War Bookshelf. Dmitri Rotov's problems with a book on the Teutonic Knights reminded me of how ancient military history is riddled with problems of limited sources to describe events. Donald Kagan's traditional account of the Periclean strategy for the Peloponnesian War is a case in point. He overlooks some questions related to logistics because he restricts himself to written sources such as Pericles' speeches in Thucydides rather than getting out a map and trying to solve military and nautical problems. In the absence of sufficient written resources, sometimes we have to play general (or admiral).

Holier than Whom?

The U.S. Army is critically compared with the British Army of imperial days in The Sunday Times of London. According to the article, the American soldier pledges an oath that he will destroy his country's enemies. Andrew Garfield, a former British military intelligence officer, currently at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, has written a report suggesting, yet again, that British soldiers are somehow more sophisticated and flexible at dealing with the kind of counter-insurgency campaign that confronts the American army in Iraq. This was also a myth peddled during the Vietnam War, which the British often compare unfavorably with their efforts during the Malayan Emergency. The fact that the British counter-insurgency methods during the Emergency were employed to some extent in Vietnam (as detailed in Stanley Karnow's book), is never mentioned because it would undermine the British Army's heartfelt belief that it is a superior force to the American one. (You'll have to take my word for that, based on conversations with various British military writers I've had over the years.)

The journalist writing for The Sunday Times seems to have misinterpreted the report, which specifically refers to the British Army's post-imperial experience in "nation-building", by implying this was common throughout British imperial history. I've found that the British were involved in constructing railroads in Bengal, but I haven't found any other reference to British imperial civil engineering easily. I'm not saying I don't believe Sarah Baxter. I am saying that the Internet isn't publicizing it yet, suggesting that there's a touch of preaching to the choir in the British establishment's traditionally patronizing tone toward the USA.

Censorship at War

Everyone knows how the World Wide Web makes censorship a little more difficult, and it appears that some harsh views about the RAF in Afghanistan have leaked through. The many blogs about the current wars being fought in the Middle East have drawn much comment in the press, but one has to wonder how armed forces are considering dealing with the matter. When one remembers that even letters home have regularly been censored by armed forces in the past, we ought to read these "war blogs" with more circumspection.

22 September 2006

Catching Up

The long hiatus has been a consequence of two factors: The hard disk on one of my computers died, while I was trying to finish the manuscript of my latest book, Chronicle of War, due to be published in time for Christmas by Carlton Books.

During the time, I've been keeping on eye on events, and thinking about them in historical context. One of the most interesting to me has been the recent concerns over NATO troop levels in Afghanistan. This has also come back into the news recently. Adding up the two figures gives a total of 41,000 NATO and American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.

Here's a question for you: How many soldiers did the Soviet Union keep in Afghanistan during their ten-year war from 1979 until 1989? Well, it varied, but rarely dropped below 100,000, and peaked around 140,000. In their original estimates, the Red Army reckoned that 30-35 divisions would be required to subjugate the country. Once you add logistical support troops, that's looking at an army approaching 500,000. You can find one examination of supply problems in Afghanistan here.

Now we know that the NATO contingent in Afghanistan is only fighting half (if that) as many angry Afghan factions as the Red Army faced, but that still means a lot larger force is required if any value is to be attached to Soviet analysis of the operatonal problem.