31 December 2007

A Crashing Rotten Structure

Over the holidays, watching an episode of The World At War being broadcast on on UKTV History, I was reminded of an incident in my publishing career from twenty years ago. I was working on what was my favorite of all my partwork projects ever, a flop called "Battlefield". Only three issues saw publication, but we got up to about eight or nine in some form of preparation.

The idea behind Battlefield was to create an alphabetical illustrated encyclopedia of photographed conflict. It was a brilliant concept in the context of partwork publishing, since there would be considerable opportunities for reusing material, and full credit for this concept should go to the man who launched my career in publishing, Ashley Brown. Issue three included a short, six-page article on Operation Barbarossa, which happened to be the same subject as my episode of The World At War.

I had a ruck with Ashley Brown over this article, which I thought was preposterous. Barbarossa was too vast a campaign for it to be covered in six pages. (We're talking about the whole shebang, from 22 June 1941 to 8 December 1941.) In the end, once the article had been assembled and gone off for repro, the editor (Reg Grant) confided in me that the article was indeed slim by comparison with our fairly extensive coverage of Second El Alamein or Amiens in 1918 or Arras in 1940.

My World at War viewing reminded me of this episode in my personal history, as well as my experience of writing Chronicle of War. I now think that coverage of Barbarossa, as understood by the "intelligent general reader" during the 1970s and 1980s, was highly misleading because it didn't focus on the individual battles during the campaign, but on the wider objectives of Hitler's daring thrusts. This sentiment is partially reflected in Chronicle of War.

Things are not as bad as they were, as the Wikipedia entry on Operation Barbarossa indicates. But I'm still not clear whether the idea that the Red Army defeated their German counterpart, fair and square, has entered into general understanding. I started drawing up a detailed chronology of Barbarossa, which I thought would help build a book or other project, while writing Chronicle of War, but the actual work of providing 150,000 words prevented me from taking this idea far enough to turn into something practical.

28 December 2007

Wartime Assassination

I like to look at events from different angles, and yesterday's assassination of Benazir Bhutto made me think about assassination as a military operation. My memory cannot come up with a single assassination attempt sponsored by a government at war with its target prior to 1942 (with the possible exception of some events during the American Civil War). While those fighting a propaganda war may choose to depict Benazir Bhutto as a non-combatant, she was only a non-combatant in the same way Thomas Dewey was a non-combatant as he campaigned against Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. Bhutto was seeking to become a key political leader in a country at war with both dissidents in its own country and the former government of its neighbor, Afghanistan.

If the assassin was connected with the Taliban, al-Qaeda or even the combatants in Waziristan, then this was an act of war, not a political assassination such as that of Gaitan in Colombia. If that's the case, you have to wonder how much responsibility rests at the feet of Ms Bhutto and her political associates, who perhaps should have been more cautious about security arrangements in a war zone.

But more noteworthy to me is how political leaders have become legitimate military targets according to the laws of war in the 21st century. This is a bad, not a good, thing. It's one thing to exile a defeated military leader, and another to seek to kill him or her anywhere but on the battlefield.

23 December 2007

Naughty Computers, New Book

My silence has been imposed in part by my computers, all of which decided to give me headaches during the past ten days. (I've also been working on my other blog, a rather more primitive affair.) I managed to sort all my problems out myself, thanks to one of the two always being able to connect to the Internet, save for one day when my broadband connection went down for some reason. It's amazing what you can accomplish with a little knowledge of using the command line, patience and an Internet connection.

More interesting, I hope, is that I've got a new commission, to write a short book on the American Revolution for children aged 10-13. I'll post some of my experiences over the coming weeks. The deadline is very soon, so I've got a full plate just now.

01 December 2007

Mosier vs the British: Round Two

An anonymous commentator on this blog post about John Mosier's old book The Myth of the Great War sent me back to the library to check out a copy.

Mr Anonymous basically rehashes the criticisms deployed by what he describes as ‘The "BEF Party Line"…the John Terraine/Gary Sheffield school’. The key points he makes are

(a) The book is riddled with serious errors.

(b) ‘He can't seem to resist passing up any opportunity to denigrate the British, even to the point of dismissing acres of research with which he does not agree in sneering footnotes. This reeks of the glib undergraduate essay, not a serious book.’

(c) ‘Mosier exaggerates the US battlefield role in 1918.’

The problem with all the reviews I've so far read about Mosier’s work (which are not that many, to be honest), is basically summarized in the statement, which could be the theme of this blog, that ‘history, especially the history of war, is politics by another means.’ Perhaps in no war is this more the case than in the First World War, which even at the time saw a protracted argument at high cost that set ‘Easterners’ against ‘Westerners’ in both Allied and Central Powers’ camps. The continuing rage against the British high command has its origins in 1915, and it may not be far wrong to say that the great monuments scattered around the Commonwealth and in Belgium to the war dead are an attempt to offer some kind of palliative to this anger.

Furthermore, Mosier is an American, and there remains a profound undercurrent of Anglophobia in the United States for which the trope of Bungling Butchers of the Western Front is meat and drink. Mosier, like any good barrister, ignores the inconvenient facts and exaggerates the convenient ones to make his case. But while the BEF/Haig Lobby turns purple with outrage at the many mistakes in Mosier’s polemical account, they continue to avoid engaging the essential points of his book. In other words, they are being good barristers for their own clients.

Mosier’s essential points are:

(a) The German Army started the war both doctrinally and materially superior to the Allies.

(b) The German Army had been winning on the Western Front until the American Army intervened.

(c) ‘No British or American account deals adequately with the war between France and Germany on the Western Front.’ - his preface

The question to my mind is whether the merits of his contributions on these points outweigh his mistakes and exaggerations elsewhere. I’ll call this round a draw because for me, as well as Mosier’s bringing into view the considerable extent of American support for the Allies prior to April 1917, point (c) in particular is very important indeed.

27 November 2007

Pizarro Coup

We've recently passed an important anniversary in the military history of South America, probably the most significant such event in all its history. It certainly is a top choice of Jared Diamond, whose book Guns, Germs & Steel is still popular on Amazon.com's military bestseller list. I write of the Capture of an Inca King at the Ambush at Cajamarca on 16 November 1532. (The word "Battle", normally used for this, seems to glorify what was basically a massacre.) If your Spanish is up to it, you can read a hand-written account here.

23 November 2007

Maple Leafs in Blue and Grey

I'd known about "British North America's" oblique involvement in the American Civil War since I was very young, thanks to some comic book history of the conflict that I was given when I was about 6 or 7 years old. Some of the panels covered Confederates scheming sabotage north of the border in the loyal states. Then, some years later, I discovered that Clement Vallandigham, the notorious Copperhead, set up his base in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from where I grew up.

However, I was not aware of how substantial Canada's contribution was in terms of supplying volunteers for the conflict. Of course, Collections Canada has an online exhibit of some photographs and printed matter related to the Canadian Civil War, but these all focus on the contribution to the Union cause; undestandable, since the subject of the exhibit is the anti-slavery movement in Canada. Yet some Canadians volunteered for service in the Confederate army, too.

Not quite a hat-tip, but some ackowledgment is due to Gates of Vienna, via Small Dead Animals, who put me on the track of this topic.

OT: My Inner European

I'm not at all surprised.

Your Inner European is French!

Smart and sophisticated.
You have the best of everything - at least, *you* think so.

Hat-tip to Chone.

19 November 2007

Hobson's and Nixon's War

Richmond P. Hobson, a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, is not a name people of my generation can be expected to know, but it has been familiar to me since I was a little boy. For some reason, I've always been attracted to more obscure conflicts than the Big Three of the American Civil War, the First World War and the Second World War. One of my early favourites was the Spanish-American War, largely on account of my liking the look of ships from that era. Amply illustrated books such as Frank Friedel's The Splendid Little War, certainly helped.

One of the most celebrated heroes at the time of the war was Lieutenant Hobson, who attempted to block the harbour entrance to the port of Santiago at a time when the Spanish squadron of four armoured cruisers and two destroyers was inside. He took a collier, the USS Merrimac, and tried to scuttle it at the narrowest point of the channel. Hobson's daring adventure ended in failure, but it gave him national celebrity.

Not many years after I first read the story of Hobson, on 17 June 1971, President Richard Nixon mobilized part of the resources of American government against what he called "public enemy number one" - illegal recreational drugs generally and heroin in particular. I have vague memories of newsmagazine stories about opium poppies (then predominantly grown in Turkey) and the heroin trade. Yet I was utterly unaware of Hobson's part in developing the thesis that heroin and other narcotices were a major cause of crime in the United States, and that it was vital to keep it out of the country.

Hobson had been an important spokesman of the movement that ended up giving us Prohibition in the 1920s. With his work done in that field, he turned his attention to narcotics, and spent the rest of his life writing and lecturing about the dangers criminals using heroin posed to civilized society.

The war Hobson urged and Nixon started has turned into a Thirty-Five Years' War that shows no signs of even getting near an end.

15 November 2007

Valkyrie Hundred

Today is the 100th birthday of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the German colonel who planted the bomb that nearly killed Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944. Von Stauffenberg (apologies if I spoil the end of Tom Cruise's next big film) was shot that night in Berlin, effectively on the orders of a general who wanted to conceal his own sympathies for the plotters.

Von Stauffenberg's reputation remains quite lustrous, in spite of his coming somewhat late to anti-Hitler plotting. Hans Oster, Wilhelm Canaris, Hans-Bernd Gisevius all preceded Von Stauffenberg into organizing a conspiracy against the German dictator, but are largely forgotten by all except by those taking a closer interest into resistance to the Nazi regime. This is a shame, in part because they came closer to success than one might have imagined at the time of the Munich crisis in 1938.

As usual when it comes to laying blame for responsibility for the Second World War, the British government's own inability to decide whose side it was on during the interwar period bears the greatest blame. Theodor Kordt, the German ambassador to London, alerted the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, to the existence of the conspiracy on September 7, 1938. Six days later, Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister, announced he would negotiate with Herr Hitler. Although, this in itself did not puncture the balloon created by the plotters, it set in motion the events that did. On September 28, Chamberlain agreed to the Munich conference, that apologists for Britain's interwar governments always characterize as having bought vital time for the organization of the Royal Air Force and rearmament. The conspirators, faced with another of Hitler's lucky breaks, put their plans on hold.

Whether the plotters would have succeeded in 1938 is of course open to some degree of doubt. Certainly, the knowledge that a conspiracy had existed at that time encouraged the British belief that almost randomly dropping bombs on German cities at night would eventually rouse the conspirators to action once again. (It didn't, by the way.) Furthermore, Halifax and Chamberlain could not necessarily regard Kordt's statements as reflecting a powerful conspiracy, as opposed to some talking circle Kordt sought to inflate all out of proportion to its real strength.

Yet even with these caveats, the fact remains that there was a chance for the war to be delayed, if not averted, in 1938, and that from time to time we should recall that German opposition to Hitler had a long gestation period.

14 November 2007

Military History Carnival VIII

The newest Military History Carnival is up at Gary Smailes' blog. It went up about a week ago. The Australian War Memorial item on pillboxes around Passchendaele 1917 is of considerable interest, if only for the accompanying photographs. The existence of such fortifications in the First World War tends to be forgotten in mainstream imagery. However, I'd also recommend the five-part series on cotton speculation during the American Civil War, if only because I've read it alleged that the assault on Iwo Jima was largely in order to allow American construction companies to profit from building an air base, rather than any serious strategic considerations. Or, to phrase it another way: 1. Get Air Force to bomb Japan; 2. Build the airfields, 3. Profit!

13 November 2007

25 Years of The Wall

Today is the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. The architect/designer, Maya Lin, expressed the view that the politics of the war had 'eclipsed' the sacrifice of those who fought it. Yet how often does the politics of a war eclipse the sacrifice of those who are fighting it? More frequently than we might think, perhaps.

08 November 2007


Continuing a somewhat accidental Hispanic theme, I was watching the film Alatriste on DVD last night, when I was struck by the events of the battle of Rocroi portrayed there not quite fitting my admittedly sketchy memory of the action. A quick search to confirm my memory uncovered this detailed site about the Tercios, infantry units of the Spanish army of the 16th and 17th centuries. It includes a lengthy section on organization, tactics and life in the ranks, as well as descriptions of battles.

07 November 2007

Sack of Lima Library

The War of the Pacific is a little-known conflict in the English-speaking world. However, it made the headlines today when Chile returned 3,778 books to Peru, books that had been seized during the Chilean occupation of the capital Lima during the war. The books include the works of Homer, Bibles, and the 16th-century poet Garcilaso de la Vega.

The comments to this 2006 blog entry reveals a list of some of the absent volumes. In February of this year, a former director of the Peruvian National Library proposed the creation of a commission to draw up a list of the books pending their return. In March, 50 Latin American intellectuals sent an open letter to the Chilean government requesting the return of these books. The Chilean government agreed to do so shortly afterwards. If you can read Spanish, here's a decidedly Peruvian view, suggesting that the 3,778 books represent only a small part of a cultural heritage that has passed into institutional and private hands in Chile, and more should be returned. These two countries still don't get on, really.

06 November 2007

Martyrs in Spain, Politics in Rome

The weekend before last, the Catholic Church beatified 498 clergy killed during the Spanish Civil War for refusing to deny their. That this was a political act is proven as much by the headlines accompanying the news stories describing the occasion. Are you a liberal? Then you'll want to read this article, where the word martyrs appears in quotation marks in the headline. If you are an out-and-out leftist of socialistic or even atheistic communist views, go here. If you are a liberal anti-clerical, a traditional posture of Catholic polities in Europe, you might like to read Christian Laporte's piece in La Libre Belgique, quoted here. (But you'll need to read French.) If your views are of a more traditional, perhaps even Francoist bent, you could find some comfort in this web site aimed at expatriates in Spain.

One of the problems confronted in writing about war is that the construction of the historical record is a political act, and even more so when writing about conflicts in which millions have died. The Vatican was on record on 28 October 2007 saying that the beatification of these martyrs was not a political act. Yet it was, because it's impossible to do such a thing without knowing that fascists will see an event they can take advantage of, and did. The article in El País, a centrist Spanish newspaper very much emblematic of post-Franco Spain, specifically quoted an incident in which a man is carrying a Francoist-era national flag, with the coat of arms in front of the breast of an eagle. At the same time, the mobilization of the event by Franco's fans will certainly alienate those who have Republican sympathies. The Catholic Church is a big enough institution that it can shrug its shoulders, so to speak, and continue to pursue its own agenda. However, those of us writing about it end up prisoners of our own prejudices, as each of these 498 people made an individual decision that cost them their life. Some may have hoped and prayed for the success of Franco's "crusade"; but others might have simply expressed their faith at the wrong time and in the wrong place. To exploit their deaths and the public commemoration of their deaths for political purposes seems far too selfishly intrusive for my taste.

01 November 2007

The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight?

BBC History Magazine has devoted two articles to the Spitfire and the battle of Britain. They don't appear to have much online content, so you'll have to look in your local supplier if you want to have an idea of whether it is worth reading. Here's the article where I first came across the story. At this stage I don't know what to make of it. You'll find some discussion of the matter at this rather odd place, together with a link to another newspaper article. Certainly, I remember from numerous books I read in the middle 1980s that one of the perceived strengths of the Spitfire and the Hurricane was the 'shotgun effect' of their eight .303in wing-mounted machine guns, which didn't require the same level of marksmanship skill as the German Me 109's armament of cannon and machine guns (some allusion to it is made at post 74 ). If you can't shoot straight, throw a lot of lead in a wide area to maximize your probability of getting a hit. However, that would require opening fire at close range, but thankfully the British have always found 'grit' when they need it.

28 October 2007

Postcard from Spain

After missing my flight and gaining an extra day in beautiful northwestern Spain, I came home to London and did a little digging about a statue I spotted all too briefly in Gijón. We were visiting a friend, who took us to eat at one of those little places that locals know but never get in guidebooks. It turned out the statue was of Pelagius, or Pelayo, the first king of Asturias.

I've tried to find out some more about him, because subsequently we saw at Oviedo cathedral the cross he is supposed to have carried in the battle of Covadonga against the Moors in 722, generally regarded as the first contest of the Reconquista, the crusade that lasted 750 years and which ultimately resulted in the expulsion of Moslems from Spain. That's ten years before Charles Martel defeated the Arab invader at Tours and allegedly saved Western Europe from an Islamic conquest.

There's not much about Covadonga in English on the Web, but I did a quick search in Spanish found one article that gives some details of the battle. I'll give a summary of the content in English, for those whose Spanish doesn't go as far as mine.

The date of the battle is 28 may 722. Wilder estimates of the Moslem force amount to 187,000, but this is clearly an exaggeration. Pelagius, a descendant of the Visigoths who settled in Spain during the collapse of the Roman Empire, led some 300 men, two-thirds of which he set up in a blocking position through a narrow pass, and the remainder he hid in a cave. The blocking force stopped the progress of the Moslem force by shooting arrows and hurling rocks. The disordered Moslem column then was struck by his ambush emerging from their hiding place in the cave. In the fighting, the Moslem commander al-Kama was killed, and the panicking Moslem troops turned and ran. The major consequence of the victory was that Pelagius was able to establish a focus for subsequent Christian resistance to the complete conquest of the peninsula.

19 October 2007

Carnival VII

I missed the posting of the latest Military History Carnival, at Airminded. I've looked at some of the posts, but I've nothing to add to what you can find by going to Brett Holman's blog.

I'm off to Spain for a few days, so I'll definitely be silent until next Thursday.

08 October 2007

Monday Morning Roundup

Two links that caught my eye during the past couple of weeks, today from what one might characterize as The Fringe of writing about war:

-- The sometimes worrying preoccupation with what one might call the 'sensationalist' side of the occult long predates The X-Files. In this case, it's not the first time that I've seen a reference to the use of paranormal methods during the Cold War. I'm fairly sure I saw a television programme about such things during either the late 1970s or the early 1980s. What I wonder about is how one would convince the bean counters to authorize the expenditure?

-- I rather the like the honesty about the poor English that heads this blog entry about the truth of the Rape of Nanking. This entry is an interesting example of how to ignore inconvenient evidence in order to make a propaganda attack. I include it more as a warning about how to read media commentary on conflict, rather than to lend any support to the author's attempt to discredit the fact of the event.I also include it to note the passing of the 70th anniversary, which I don't remember there being any significant coverage about in the English-language press. (I only had room for a sentence about it in my book, Chronicle of War.)

05 October 2007

Reviewing the Syrian Bombing 4: Speculation and breakthrough

With everybody quiet about what had happened in northern Syria, apart from the dropping of "fuel tanks", journalist-analysts were able to get into gear and engage in speculation. A Syrian writer produced an interesting article giving a wider background to Syrian-Israeli friction, and offered three scenarios, none of which has proven to be correct. (Avid readers of such columns should take heed.) More interestingly, he suggested that
There has been much speculation about an outbreak of hostilities between Damascus and Israel since June. Both countries had been mobilizing troops, raising the prospects of war, until Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak came out one week before the military operation saying his country was going to withdraw its troops from the Golan border.

Now that was news. I don't always follow what's going on in the Middle East as closely as one might, but I wasn't aware of any mobilization going on.

However, on 12 September, one was to receive the first indication of what now appears to have happened. The story was attributed to anonymous Israeli sources. Interestingly, however, while the Israelis refer to a missile base, the source of the rumour that nuclear materials were involved, according to the article I have linked, was American - The New York Times.

04 October 2007

Wandering up the Mohawk Trail

Baseball playoffs, and my elder daughter's school experience, have been absorbing my spare time at the moment, but I have had a chance to look at this excellent blog entry about the western New York frontier during the American Revolution that appeared as part of the Military Carnival. The quote from Sherman appears the product of a mind of a man who has a prophet's sense of faith in the rightness of his mission. Yet this little extract from it:
General Sullivan obeyed his orders like a man and like a soldier

may hint to us something of the mental crisis that Sherman himself experienced in the autumn of 1861,when he became convinced of a large Rebel army concentrating against his own forces along the Ohio river. It was a personal setback from which only the existence of Sherman's friends and relations in high places enabled him to elude longer-lasting consequences.

28 September 2007

Carnival in Review

I've been looking at some of the blog entries presented in Military History Carnival VI. My favourite at the moment is a review of the book The Wages of Destruction found at A Fistful of Euros. A Fistful of Euros is not a military history blog, so it doesn't feature on my blogroll, and I hadn't been aware of it before. The review has certainly stimulated me to look for the book, and rather than do a summary of its main points, I'd encourage you to point your browser there and read it for yourself.

I'd like to touch on two themes in the review that fit into a sort of rhyming pattern with ideas that percolate in my head and inform what I write here. One is the contrast the Nazis sought to make between their own vision and that of unfettered, decadent American capitalism. I've often felt that for politicians pursuing a Third Way don't realize that one already existed - fascism saw itself as exactly that, opposed to both America's liberal capitalism and the Red Menace of Socialism/Communism. You're making a Fourth Way, fellows, if not a fifth one. (Gandhian autarchy maybe needs to count somewhere.)

The other is that you'll find the review focuses at some length on Bomber Command's campaign against the German people. To quote at length what seems to me to be the nub of the issue:
Harris and his staff didn’t want to disrupt industry, after all; they wanted to “dehouse the German working class”, which they believed would lead to revolution or at least chaos. So this counterfactual would have required a different Bomber Command; one that didn’t believe in airpower theory, and therefore probably wouldn’t have existed.

A lot of the debate one finds about Bomber Command revolves around this point exactly. The Bomber Command zealots argue that attacking industry is a legitimate war target and it is one of the misfortunes of conflict that those living nearby get killed. But that's not the Bomber Command they are defending, which explicitly set out to kill ordinary Germans and destroy their homes.

Harris's campaign was a diversion of important resources to a secondary target when alternative military (or naval) policies might have been more effective in fighting the war. One could add the moral dimension that Harris certainly deserved to be subject to a War Crimes investigation, although possibly not a prosecution. I don't think Tooze's book would support me, but I find some comments to support my opinion in the review.

27 September 2007

Syria Bombing 3: Rumours

Speculation did not exactly take off rapidly in the days after the alleged Israeli raid. A reference to "a mysterious strategic operation" was about as far as anyone cared to go. An article at the same time from the same source, perhaps was an attempt to draw out some more concrete details. Other wild speculation about other peculiar events could be found elsewhere.

26 September 2007

Reviewing the Syrian Raid 2: Protests

It didn't take long for the diplomats to raise a sterner fuss over what the Syrians had initially tried to shrug off as a minor incident. The Russians weighed in quite heavily, as did Iran (in the same article). (Although, I must say Ha'aretz's sub-editor did work up the stress quotient inserting 'slammed' to characterize the Iranian response.) Syria, meanwhile, invited the United States to make a comment.

25 September 2007

Reviewing the Syrian Raid 1: "Bombing? No bombing here."

The mysterious affair in Syria sent me back to my archive, where I found this article from Guardian Unlimited. It's very clear that the Syrians were doing all they could to avoid whatever happened becoming a significant international incident, at least straightaway.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency quoted a military official as saying Israeli jets broke the sound barrier flying over northern Syria before dawn Thursday, then ``dropped munitions'' onto deserted areas after being shot at by Syria's air defenses.

Syria did not claim the aircraft bombed its territory, however. Asked if Israel attacked Syria, Cabinet Minister Buthaina Shaaban said only that the aircraft violated Syrian air space.

``We are a sovereign country. They cannot do that,'' Shaaban said on Al-Jazeera television's English service.

This, oddly, makes me suspicious in a different way. It's probably worth tracing how a story the Syrians seem to have been eager to pass over quickly, gradually blew up into something more significant - something connected to the ongoing concerns about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

21 September 2007

Pot-Pourri Welcome

I'd been saving a number of links for future posts, but the backlog has gotten such that I must deal with some more swiftly. So, here's some things that have caught my eye in the last two weeks.

- To start on a personal note, my brother occasionally alludes to his US Navy experiences in the late 1960s, tracking Soviet submarines. This book and podcast offer a view that one US submarine sinking may have been a consequence of a cat-and-mouse game played with the Red Navy over several years.

- The US Army is planning to reorganize itself from a divisional to a brigade pattern in order to be more flexible in undertaking action. The Council on Foreign Relations has provided a short background note about what's going on.

- Inter-service rivalries go beyond the Army-Navy game in the United States. But they appear to be a subject of debate in other countries, too.

- Finally, I used to be active in Detroit area gaming during the 1970s, and this game was quite a popular space-filler in between other activities. I'd forgotten all about it. It's not, however, for those without a sense of humour.

20 September 2007

Unmet expectations

A quote from an Op-Ed piece in Newsday, a suburban New York city paper, probably puts the American predicament in Iraq better in the wake of General Petraeus's comments better than anything else I have seen.
When popular resistance to the incursion first appeared, one U.S. general was heard to say this was not what he and his troops had planned for. Indeed. None of our war plans envisioned house-to-house fighting in Baghdad four years later, and one wonders if the American people would have acquiesced if they had.

18 September 2007

The Petraeus Narrative

I've allowed my comments on the Petraeus Report to slip to the backburner, so let me return to that theme.

Historians all normally tackle a mass of inchoate facts that they must shape into narrative. General Petraeus basically had the same job in writing his report. It was very clear from his testimony to the House committee that he had constructed his narrative and stuck to it like a catechism.

The Petraeus narrative is as follows:

1) After the U.S. invasion, it was imperative to rebuild the Iraqi state.
2) U.S. measures at first went as well as one could legitimately expect, given the many problems. However, the bombing of the mosque at Samarra by al-Qaeda unleashed the pent-up sectarian divisions in Iraq.
3) Sectarian violence then threatened to spin out of control, and coalition forces were unable to protect the civilian population.
4) After the height of the problems in December 2006, American forces and their Iraqi associates slowly began to reassert a measure of authority.
5) A sudden and dramatic transformation occurred during the summer of 2007, and now the success in Anbar province provides a model to apply to the rest of the country.

Neither the House nor the Senate committees sought to challenge this narrative at all. I'm not so sure that was helpful. Where, for example, do we fit in the bombing of the UN headquarters building in the Canal Hotel? Or there is the Imam Ali mosque bombing also in 2003. These events took place in the distant past, relatively speaking. Presumably Petraeus regards the problems they provoked as being under way to solution before the Samarra bombing. Yet American and Iraqi authorities have been eager to find evidence that these were the product of al-Qaeda's strategy of stirring up sectarianism.

I don't know, even this event, when al-Qaeda's Iraqi mastermind formally declared war on Shia Iraq seems to have been swept under the carpet. I'm afraid if I were marking Petraeus's exam paper, I'd give him a C for this narrative. Samarra was just another episode in a long series. If the Shia didn't respond as vigorously, it might be because they lacked the means to do so.

Military History Carnival VI

I mark my 100th post by mentioning the existence of the Military History Carnival, which is having its sixth showinig. You'll find a very comprehensive overview of its contents at Armchair General.

I'm somewhat surprised to find the Carnival leading off with continuing rumblings in the Military History blogosphere about why one should study military history. One could easily point that question at any more specialized approach to history. I think the whole debate reflects a lack of academic self-confidence. When you look back 35 years or so, military history writing was dominated by the sort of fellows academics would regard as 'hack writers', many of whom had actual military or naval experience. They've mostly been driven out of the business by postgraduate students and junior academics. The effect has been to raise the standard of research somewhat, at some cost to readability. (Although one can always point to good examples.) It has also fractured the mass audience for military history books. Publishers produce more books, which sell in smaller numbers, and are desperate for any sort of tie-in that will help marketing. Meanwhile, every year military history academics graduate candidates who have books and articles to sell. They'd better start making more money so they can buy their colleagues' works.

17 September 2007

Guerrillas in Namibia

Guerrilla wars are difficult to construct any kind of intelligible narrative. It helps to be mindful of the experience of war in the trenches on the Western Front during World War I. Although one focuses on the Big Push - with its traditional sequence of barrage, offensive, and counterattack - there are also both before and during the battle trench raids, quiet sectors, and individual sniping incidents. Likewise, with guerrilla warfare, particularly in Africa, its essence is of a steady flow of men into and out of base camps. Skirmishes and ambushes can be opportunistic and based on intelligence. From time to time, one comes across the kind of vignettes that help add color to the at-times tedious narrative of the political dimension that, perhaps intentionally, is the over-arching narrative of the conflict. Namibia is possibly the least known of the southern African liberation wars against imperial powers and white-rule regimes. So it's refreshing to find an example in the story of an attack on Finaughty's store.

Polk's folly?

Columbus, Kentucky, has a park where you can see not only some guns deployed to block the navigation of the Mississippi, but also part of a chain erected across the river. The pictures also show how easy it was to control navigation on the Mississippi by observing from the heights. Interestingly, it appears the park was a product of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's WPA, a make-work scheme to inject money into the U.S. economy during the Great Depression.

The fortifications were under the immediate command of one of the more incompetent generals of the Civil War, the much-loved Leonidas Polk. Polk had sent one of his subordinates to occupy the place in September 1861, a decision that was arguably the most disastrous made by any Rebel commander during the war. That it was perceived as problematic at the time is clear from this exchange with the governor of Tennessee preserved in the Official Records. It had the consequence of forcing Kentuckians to take sides in a war they really preferred to avoid, and most of them opted for the Union. Read on, to see what President Davis tersely had to say about it.

Polk was forced to withdraw from the bastion after General Ulysses Grant had performed his masterful campaign to capture Forts Henry and Donelson, to the southwest of Columbus along the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. This led to the occupation of Nashville by Union forces. Faced with the prospect of Columbus's garrison being cut off by the advancing Union forces, the Rebel commander of the area, General Albert S. Johnston, ordered Polk to a concentration of forces at Corinth, Mississippi, before he made an attack on Grant's position at Shiloh.

Hat tip to Battlefield Biker.

16 September 2007

London's Bombs

I wrote back in May about bombsites in London. It seems I was premature in suggesting that they were out of out of the news. The History News Network has found a note saying they are causing problems for the 2012 London Olympics.

Useful Information Department

The Combined Arms Reference Library offers a variety of e-books on various aspects of military affairs. You can now search it with a customized search engine.

It seems to work better if you use large subject areas rather than small ones, as the comparison of this one with that one reveals.

15 September 2007

Pictures at an Exhibition

Listening to BBC Radio 4 this morning I heard someone talking about an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum of the work of Lee Miller, the Vogue photographer who accompanied US forces during the Liberation of Northwestern Europe in 1944-5. There is a selection of her war photographs on display at the site I've linked to. Notice the white camouflage worn by American troops in Alsace. One doesn't see many photographs of the white camouflage published in books.

You can find a few more details (although not all that much) here. I imagine there will be more focus on her career as an assistant to the artist Man Ray, but you never know.

14 September 2007

Government by Assassination

Japan's road to Pearl Harbor has interested me since someone got a hold of the hardback second volume of John Toland's The Rising Sun for me shortly after its first publication. It very rarely surfaces in the western world, although I did once see a Japanese movie that was a sort of drama-documentary about one aspect of it, the 2/26 Incident. (I should try to track that down for a post.)

However, a Japanese newspaper has published a brief overview of the shooting that really started the intimidation of politicians by military and naval officers. It also mentions some of the other key events. If you're not familiar with this aspect of the Japanese road to war, it's worth a look as a starting point for research. It also begs a question about the role of veterans' organizations in interwar politics. They play fascinating roles in each country. Someone should write a book (or at least an article).

13 September 2007

Have We Met the Enemy?

I've been watching the Petraeus Report hearings via C-Span's web site. For some reason it wasn't working on my PC last night, so I couldn't finish the Senate portion, but I have watched all of the Joint House committee hearings. I'll make some comments over the next few days about some of what was said.

I'd like to start with something that bothered me about some of the House members. One or two seemed to have no clear idea about who the enemy was in Iraq. And then, I thought, it's actually not all that clear because even Petraeus himself admitted that the situation had changed during the time American forces have been in the country.

Let's review the players briefly:
(1) American forces attacked Afghanistan, whose government declined to extradite Osama Bin-Laden on American terms. Enemy: Al-Qaeda and Taliban.
(2) Coalition forces attacked Iraq, out of fear that the government possessed weapons of mass destruction and that they might form an alliance with Al-Qaeda. Enemy: Saddam Hussein.
(3) Coalition forces in Iraq become the target of a resistance movement of unreconstructed Ba'athists and al-Qaeda opportunists. Enemy: Ba'ath Party Iraqis and al-Qaeda.
(4) Iraq, under occupation, teeters toward civil war, as Moslem rivals of Sunni and Shia traditions began sparring. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda opportunists continue to attack a large concentration of American forces in Iraq. Enemy: Extremists and al-Qaeda.
(5) Once large-scale terrorism breaks out in Iraq, Sunnis in other Arab countries and Iranian Shias send assistance to their co-religionists in Iraq. America decides Sunni helpers are good and Shia ones are bad. Enemy: Extremists, al-Qaeda, Iranians.

You can see the problem here for a congressperson whose time is taken up with fundraising for the election war chest, getting federal funds for his constituents, and fretting about the young state politician with an eye on going to Washington. They cling to the idea that the enemy in Iraq is al-Qaeda, because that's the only consistent thread, and it plays well with the folks.

However, one cannot go through that list without realizing that the French government was right all along. Overthrowing Saddam without anything coherent to put in his place would only make matters worse, because he was a force for stability in the region, despite all his troublemaking. I'm hard-pressed to come up with a parallel for this from American history, or even the history of other countries.

11 September 2007

Shameless Self Promotion 1

I've had an article published in History Today, a monthly magazine that has been around a very long time. You can read it online here, or go out and buy a copy.

05 September 2007

Leo Kessler, R.I.P.

I only found out today that Charles Whiting, a prolific writer of 'trashy' novels and mass-market military history, in spite of being a trained academic, had died in July, while I was in the United States. There's a good memory of him by Steve Newman.

Whiting was very much a product of his time. It's difficult to imagine today the amount of war books one could find in the 1970s, and every other boy I met in 1970s Britain seemed to be acquainted with some of them. You'll find the long list of his titles at Bear Alley, a blog. It's worth noting how many of them were published by Leo Cooper or one of the publishers associated with Anthony Cheetham, reminding us that once you get in with the right people, life is a lot easier.

Muerte del Negro Acacio

The Colombian press is reporting the death in action of a guerrilla commander of the communist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) named Tomás Medina Caracas, more familiarly known as 'El Negro Acacio'. (All FARC guerrilla leaders have these romantic noms de guerre, among them my personal favourite, El Tirofijo.) From the article (which is in Spanish) it appears that the site of his camp, the HQ for Frente 16, was subjected to a bombardment involving aircraft before soldiers moved in. This gives us some clue as to how the Colombian military is actually fighting the war on the ground, the kind of information ignored by reporters more interested in generalities. Also, notice the long list of Colombian security forces involved in the operation. I fear the Colombian forces have adopted the great tradition of inter-service rivalry found among their American counterparts.

04 September 2007

War Costs

This article is actually about the police finding it more expensive to buy bullets nowadays. It cites the 1 billion used by the U.S. Army in Iraq. However, I was interested in the costs cited, as they give us some clue as to how to make a profit in a war, thus explaining why for arms manufacturers, war is something desirable, which is a dangerous situation when government appears to be corrupt, and willing to do anything for money.

According to the article, a box of .223 ammunition for AR-15s used to cost $75, but now has almost doubled to $140. Pistol rounds are up 15 percent from $130 to $150. I have no idea how many rounds are in a case, but readers with a better notion than me can do some sums to figure out what this might mean for profitability.

Another article, from a biased source, tells us that a well-known firm of mercenaries has acquired rights to private military bases and is buying aircraft. For the purposes of this blog, I'm more interested in parallels than principles, but it seems to me that the War in Iraq is generating a powerful lobby group that not only makes a lot of money out of putting an army to use, but is also in possession of a military force of its own that will no doubt be looking for employment. In 1776, King George's mercenaries, the Hessians, became a byword for tyranny.

03 September 2007

Anniversary Season

Yesterday was my birthday. We're in the midst of anniversaries connected with the Second World War, including the invasion of Poland in 1939, the British declaration of war, and the signing of the treaty in Tokyo Harbour in 1945. However, I notice that today is the anniversary of the battle of Ain Jalut, fought between the Islamic military regime of Mameluke Egypt, and the invading Mongols. The battle is one of those 'high water marks' of history, marking the end of the Mongol 'threat' to the Islamic Middle East, and you can read about the wider campaign here.

However, it got me to thinking about how things look from a different historical perspective. Westerners like me are familiar with the treatment of the battle of Tours in 732 as the high water mark of the Moslems in Europe. Although, in fact, this honour may better be bestowed on the 1683 siege of Vienna. The current War in Iraq is simply part of a continuing struggle over the remains of the Ottoman Empire, dismembered by France and Britain in the Treaty of Sévres.

So if, indeed, we are at the high water mark of Western domination of the Middle East, have we had our "Ain Jalut moment"? Was it, in fact, the 1930s Arab Revolt in Palestine, during which the British mandate began to unravel? Or is our "Ain Jalut" still to come?

29 August 2007

A victory for propaganda?

The news is that the controversial Bomber Command panel at the Canadian War Museum is to be changed after a long campaign against it by the Bomber Command Association. I had planned to return to the subject, but my lethargy and events have made my original plans moot.

Here's a quote from Cliff Chadderton, chairman of the National Council of Veterans' Associations, published in the Ottawa Citizen:
To see (the exhibit) cheapened by terrible errors, which cast our most heroic people in a most unflattering light ... it was just patently wrong.

Now, I'm not arguing about heroism. It took heroic people to fly bombers against the Germans. But to say that the exhibit was cheapened by errors is wrongheaded. The news report focused on one particular panel. Let's see how many errors it had:

The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested.

Well, I think it remains contested, although perhaps now it is no longer bitter. I can assure people it was a lot more bitter in the middle 1980s, when I first encountered it. The last paragraph of this little summary for students concerning Air Marshall (sic) Harris, illustrates the continuing controversy.

Bomber Command's aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations.

This, I think, is where the 'error' creeps in. The Bomber Command lobby prefers to regard all these targets as military ones, and to regard any effects on civilians as the tragic collateral of living in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, I quote from the official history itself quoting from a memo prepared by Air Marshal Arthur Harris for the Air Ministry: 'It is not possible to dogmatise on the degree of destruction necessary to cause the enemy to capitulate, but there can be little doubt that the necessary conditions would be brought about by the destruction of between 40 percent and 50 percent of the principal German towns.' Well, that sounds like destroying cities and crushing morale to me.

Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions of German war production until late in the war.

The only 'error' I note in this passage is the vague term 'late in the war'. But here's an indisuputable fact. In the week ending 19 August 1944, there 899,091 railroad car loadings in the Reich, and that ending 23 December only 547,309. I don't know what they were before August 1944, but prior to March 1944, German rail transport was not a major target of Allied bombing. (Figures from John Ellis's excellent book Brute Force.)

Mr Chadderton has a track record of vigorously opposing anything that doesn't agree with his own interpretation of the historical record concerning the operations of Bomber Command. The Ottawa Citizen article indicates that a panel of historians did not find the panel 'in error'. When the pressure of private interest groups sets aside the consensus view of historians, it's difficult not to wonder if this is a victory for propaganda, and that truth is not only the first casualty in war, but a constant victim buried together with the dead.

26 August 2007

Hollywood notices Iraq

A long article in The Guardian, a British newspaper that editorially positions itself on the liberal left, attempts to illustrate the thesis that Hollywood has been unable to tackle the War in Iraq until the 2006 Congressional elections gave a green light to release some nervously pessimistic films. The key passage appears over halfway through the article:
Since the onset of war in Iraq, many movies have fallen into a similar category. The Eastwood movies, Jarhead, the HBO prelude-to-Vietnam movie Path to War, Mel Gibson's Vietnam battlefield movie We Were Soldiers: these all wanted to be Iraq movies, but they didn't quite dare.

Ya think? I can't agree. I sense the wishful thinking of the politically powerless, a kind of projection on the film-makers of what the article's author, John Patterson, would like to believe.

Current conflicts have a way of leading to a reinterpretation of past ones, and I think that's what's going on in the movies listed. We Were Soldiers in particular is an attempt to retrieve the reputation of the U.S. Army from the mire of Vietnam, where the ugly mess of Apocalypse Now is the more common interpretation in the popular mind. Gibson's character is the model of the virtuous soldier. His politics are so deeply muted as to be almost imperceptible. His focus is on the technical requirements of fighting a battle, including applying a newfangled technology to battles that ultimately rely on the traditional tactical lessons that have been relevant since Marathon. The context of American intervention is irrelevant because the movie is about soldiers in battle, which is an existential subject. Combat is a moment when "why" is irrelevant. Only once the combat ends and the dead must be buried and remembered can we safely ask why; or else we join them in the earth.

War films released in time of war are a valid opportunity to reinterpret the past using the context of the present. This is not the same thing as wanting to be about the present. For your average U.S. army officer sent to Vietnam in 1965, I would guess that Gibson's portrayal accurately captures how they saw themselves approaching their new mission. It is not the portrait of a villain.

20 August 2007

Fallen Timbers

Today is the 213th anniversary of the Battle of Fallen Timbers, part of a conflict between the United States and a confederacy of American Indians who lived in the Great Lakes region. My home town, Detroit, was still at that time occupied by the British, who exploited the opposition of the sovereign Indian peoples of the region, such as the Wyandot or the Shawnee, to accepting American control of what became known as The Old Northwest, but which in 1774 was part of Québec.

The conflict deserves to be better known than it is, for it was crucial to the future development of the United States’ Army. Consequently, there isn't much on the Web to direct you to, apart from Wikipedia. However, this little note from the Quartermaster Corps museum, highlights how military historians ignore logistical issues at their peril.

14 August 2007

Geographer Marine

The partwork The Elite effectively became the official publishing house of Falklands' War British officers during 1985-6. One of the more obscure (at that time) who emerged at this time was Hugh McManners, a Royal Marine who’d written a book entitled Falklands Commando about his experience in the conflict. (The editorial staff on The Elite valued this book quite highly for conveying the experience of training and the Falklands weather and landscape.) McManners was from a more academic background than I would expect of British Marines, and he very kindly gave the editorial team three or four tickets to a lecture he was giving at the Royal Geographical Society one evening. (He read Geogaphy at Oxford.) In a good example for freelance writers of how everything is material, we sat through a description of the Falklands from a geographer's point of view - topography, flora, effects of human and animal activity on the natural habitat. It was a refreshing alternative to the tactical approach we'd been focusing on during the day.

McManners subsequently eluded obscurity, perhaps more than any other of the officer-writers, and became a defence correspondent for the Sunday Times, and wrote several other books, the latest of which is Forgotten Voices of the Falklands War.

13 August 2007

Explaining My Hiatus

I've been away from my blog for quite a while during the summer. There were two causes, both related to my love for baseball. Mainly, I spent two weeks in the Midwest, combining a trip to the Society for American Baseball Research's annual meeting with a visit to my family in Michigan. You can see photographic evidence here (scroll down to the July 31 entry), taken during a game at new Busch Stadium in St Louis. I'm going to tie up a few loose ends over the next few days.

16 June 2007

Publishing the Falklands

For a brief time in 1986, I worked on a partwork that at the time was notorious in the UK, The Elite. However, I had been working in the publisher's offices for about two years before that, including the time of its launch in 1985. At this stage, the first wave of books about the Falkands War had already been released. The non-official "official" history, by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins, had been out for about two years. Martin Middlebrook's book had been released after The Elite. A number of other volumes had also come out.

The mastermind of The Elite was Ashley Brown, who still runs his own publishing company; together with Adrian Gilbert, who did a lot of the commissioning of the initial issues; and a nervous wreck named Jonathan Reed, who was in direct control of the project, and threw himself into it with tremendous enthusiasm. They assembled between them an excellent set of authors for all the articles, among them Nick Vaux, a Royal Marine colonel who was writing his own account of the campaign.

At the time, we had a picture researcher working for us who had some claim to being the most attractive woman in the whole company. So, having read in the Hastings and Jenkins work that in his younger days Nick Vaux had "enthusiasm for high living and female company", I can report that in the prime of his life he still did - he always brought her a rose and treated her in a charming way that she noticed and appreciated. It was also generally agreed that he had written the best account of all the battalion commanders who wrote for The Elite.

12 June 2007

Terrorism Database

The Global Terrorism Database, funded by the American government, is kept by the University of Maryland. I'm adding it to my resources links on the right. Something like this would have been handy when I was in charge of an encyclopedia of terrorism, although maybe not as much as one might expect. Terrorism is a loaded word, and one must always bear in mind that terrorists believe they are combatants fighting a war. How, for example, should one treat the Colombian FARC, which conducts a guerrilla war? Were Native Americans fighting against settlers on the frontier during the American Revolution terrorists avant la lettre? A straightforward list of events isn't necessarily helpful, especially if it excludes things that could be characterized as terrorism. Is dropping bombs that miss a military target and hit civilians terrorism, especially if those civilians are supporters of the military effort of the regime they live under?

07 June 2007

Gulf Attack!

If the Iranians had to attack American warships in the Gulf, they seem likely to go about it by swarming attacks using 20 or 30 small motor boats. The article references the damaging of the USS Samuel Roberts in 1987, which is also mentioned in this analysis from 1999, although not much detail is added. The damage to the Samuel Roberts reflected the neglect of such unglamorous work as mine clearance by the US Navy at a time when operations were largely directed toward the submarine threat posed by the Soviet navy. The incident resulted in Operation Praying Mantis, of which there are some photos and a chronology here. Interestingly to me, the USS Samuel Roberts turned up in an operation mounted in 2002 against Ecuadorian shipping travelling in Ecuadorian waters. The objective seems to have been to interdict arms shipments to Colombian guerrillas, and the matter is discussed in this article in Spanish.

06 June 2007

World War II Victory Museum

Occasionally one hears about a museum one hadn't heard of before. This one is in Indiana. It appears to have a collection of vehicles, in addition to some general exhibits, and big expansion plans.

Silence is Activity

I've been busy writing an article for a magazine these past couple of weeks, linked to my theme on "Wilson's War", which is why it mysteriously ceased appearing on this site in mid flow. Normal service is now resuming.

22 May 2007

San Carlos Water

Another fellow I met had been a serving officer at the time of the Falklands War. I never had to ask him about his experiences, because he volunteered information from time to time when he thought it relevant.

The first thing he used to talk about was the state of the facilities available to the Army after Mrs Thatcher came to power. He was scathing at the neglect and the poor quality of housing and other structures. His basic view was that the Army was treated with absolute contempt.

However, his real eye-opening experience was when the ship he and his men were aboard sailed into San Carlos Water. He was alarmed at the absence of proper air cover. During one of the Argentinian raids a bomb fell close by and he was knocked out, I'm not sure if it was by the concussion or whether the blast knocked him into something. He was, if I recall correctly, manning a GPMG vainly firing at the jet aircraft rushing by. He basically felt he and his men were sitting ducks.

After the war, he got out of the Army as soon as he could.

Here's a sailor's memory of the sinking of HMS Antelope.

21 May 2007


Today is the 128th anniversary of the naval battle of Iquique, part of the War of the Pacific between Chile and the allied states of Peru and Bolivia. The battle featured the ironclad Huáscar, on the Peruvian side, which engaged in a duel with the Chilean warship Esmeralda. You can watch an animated map of the battle here. Scroll down to the button labeled "Ver animación". The animation clearly shows the tactics adopted by the Huáscar in the battle at one point, when it took advantage of its turret.

11 May 2007

War and Marriage

While we often remember the dead of war, it's much less common to organize a celebration of the life that may have come out of war. The Halifax Daily News reports on a War Bride Train leaving for Ottawa where the Canadian War Museum is holding an exhibition to commemorate War Brides. My mother was a war bride, so it's fair to say that if it hadn't been for Herr Hitler, I wouldn't be here. Maybe I should write a book about war brides and their children. How many of the latter, like me, voluntarily came to the land of the mother's and settled down?

10 May 2007

The Loss of HMS Sheffield, 1982

I once met a fellow in Portsmouth. We had separately intended to visit the same club meeting, only they had arranged to meet in a member's house that day. We walked together to a lovely house near the dockyard. Unfortunately for him, the club member he wanted to meet wasn't around, so while I stayed he went home. Six years later (or so), he turned up in Slough, being good friends with an acquaintance of mine. The reason he was in Portsmouth in 1976, was that he was in the Royal Navy, while I was staying with my grandparents in Fareham. The reason he was in Slough in late 1982 was that he'd left the Navy about a year earlier, having served on a ship I had visited during Navy Days in 1976 - HMS Sheffield.

Some twenty-five years later (we had met frequently over the period so by now were well acquainted) I asked him about his service in the Royal Navy. He explained to me how, as a member of the mess staff, his role in combat was to control fires and to take casualties to the sick bay. At this point, he began an unprompted reminiscence about the day HMS Sheffield was hit by the Argentinian Exocet missile. It was quite a shock for him and, characteristically for him, he didn't go to work but to the pub instead. At some later point he found a casualty list and went through checking for the names of those he had served with. Had he still been aboard, he might have been among their number. I think he was still bothered, though, that he hadn't been there to help his shipmates at their time of need.

09 May 2007


When I first came to Britain, as a student, in 1978, the scars of the Second World War were still in plain view. "Bombsites" were the playgrounds of inner-city youth. Shelters still stood in people's back yards. Then, when I moved here in the mid 1980s, you'd hear every other year or so about traffic problems caused by the discovery of an unexploded bomb. I think the last one in London was in the mid 1990s. Occasionally, a note would crop up in the newspaper about a farmer uncovering some weapon of war on the Continent. However, it's worth remembering that there are other places to find relics of the war.

08 May 2007

Jeanne d'Orléans

Today is the anniversary of Joan of Arc raising of the siege or Orléans, a key military event that has been overshadowed to some extent by subsequent accomplishments. There's an interesting summary of the context and events of the entire siege here.

07 May 2007

Falklands Memories - Introduction

I was going to write a short note about the loss of HMS Sheffield on the 25th anniversary, but the more I poked and prodded with the text, the more I realized that it wouldn't do the subject of the Falklands justice. This little war of 1982 was the subject of a page-long review article in The Guardian this weekend. Of the four books reviewed, I have encountered three of the authors in my time in publishing. I've also met a couple of other people with links to the conflict, one as a direct participant, the other someone who had just left the service when the war came.

I wanted to call this post "The Comic Book War", but I thought it would be misunderstood. No war is a comical affair. My point was that the war played a role on the Home Front equivalent to those comic books such as the Commando series. The "Argies" were the bad guys, although perceived more like Second World War Italians than Nazis. We tuned into the TV each night to see retired officers discuss various options over a sand table, with a man named Snow. Naturally, since civilians tend to overlook logistics, and retired offices play their roles in disinformation campaigns, most of the speculations were very wrong-headed.

But what stands out most for me about the Falklands War was that it was the only truly popular war I've ever experienced in my lifetime. People of a certain age who had been through the Second World War, those who at the time of the Falklands were just under 60, couldn't see the point of the conflict. Everybody else in Britain seemed to determined to see this thing through, even welcomed it. Compare that with the Vietnam War, which divided my school and my family; the Gulf War of 1991, which I demonstrated against; the Yugoslav War of 1999, which most people I met thought a waste of money and effort; and the ongoing Iraq War, before which my wife and children took part in the March of a Million through London, and you'll see what I mean.

However, having said that, I must recount my favorite story related to the Falklands. Just after word of the Argentine invasion reached us, the man in whose house I was living came back from work. He had been expressing his unhappiness with the potential loss of many young men's lives for some scraps of turf in the South Atlantic with work colleagues. One of them, a youngish office junior who frequently featured in his stories from work, protested: "I don't see what business they have up there anyway." Puzzled, because he would have expected the circumlocution to be "down there", not up, the much older man probed further into this young lady's notions. It quickly became apparent that this young lady thought the Falklands Islands were somewhere in the vicinity of the Faeroes.

01 May 2007

Antony Preston

I discovered that Antony Preston has been provided with a Wikipedia entry. I first saw Antony Preston in the summer of 2002, when he came into the offices of Conway Maritime Press, then part of Chrysalis Books. Eventually, I had the opportunity of editing his last book, The World's Worst Warships, which was published, very late, in 2002. The picture research was done mostly by me, although Antony found a few of the pictures in the old Conway Maritime archive, and we went through all the images before the book went into design. I also introduced a howling error in the book, which I never had the chance to apologize to Antony for making. It was a very stressful time, as the designer seemed more interested in ordering new Vans than ensuring the typography was correct and all the necessary retouching done to the photographs, and I was standing in for the entire editorial department who had gone off on vacation. Antony himself was at this time in hospital, where I visited him a couple of times. He was so bored he was grateful to accept the proofs to distract him from the tedium of a hospital stay. He's the sort of niche author whom I think deserves a Wikipedia entry. But they really ought to spell his Christian name correctly!

25 April 2007

Duxford's DH-9

The Imperial War Museum at Duxford has unveiled a restored DeHaviland DH-9 according to the local press. What I found of especial interest was that, according to the article, the museum had to sell an Me-163 Komet in order to finance the purchase and restoration of the DH-9.

24 April 2007

Chronicle of War

I received my author's copies yesterday. I think it looks good. I've also picked up a copy of Harry Pearson's account of growing up (and being grown up) with stories of war not just in the background but enveloping one like a mist rolling in from the sea.

18 April 2007

More Caption Controversy

The Canadian War Museum's exhibition on the work of the RCAF in Bomber Command has come in for some complaints from veterans. Unfortunately, the article doesn't quote the offending text at any length, so one must be more circumspect in taking sides. However, in this case my sympathies lie with the museum. The grim fact of strategic bombing operations during the war is that they killed many German civilians who for one reason or another found themselves in the vicinity of legitimate war targets. (Although at some point I believe Bomber Command regarding housing as a legitimate war target.) In the same way that chemical and biological weapons have been effectively criminalized by international institutions, I personally feel that the killing of civilians by military action should also be viewed with a jaundiced eye, no matter what military (or naval, in the case of the Lusitania) logic can be seen to justify their deaths. In that sense, I'd argue that the burden of proof rests on the Bomber Command personnel, and not the museum.

16 April 2007

Yad Vashem Caption Controversy

In the end, it seems Monsignor Antonio Franco, the Papal ambassador to Israel, will attend a memorial service for the victims of the Nazi murder of Jews at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. You can find the text of the caption quoted in this article.

Having written plenty of captions and short texts about historical subjects ranging from Scottish medieval history to the 9/11 Terror Attacks, I feel confident that I know how difficult it is to reduce a complex subject to a handful or two of words. In this case, my sympathies lie with the Vatican. The caption about Pius XII seems to use the available information to place the former pope in the worst possible light. While I wouldn't call the information in question 34 here as kind to Pius XII, it does place his conduct in the context of the Catholic Church and other Christian religions institutions as a whole. Pius XII could indeed have done more, but I'm sure that's true of plenty of other people. This caption seems either calculated to offend or a ploy in order to achieve greater access to the Vatican archives. Either way, it's not good history.

13 April 2007

Call for Photographs

Harper Collins in New Zealand plan to publish a book of First World War photographs intended to be definitive picture history of New Zealand involvement in the war. All the Dominions began establishing a real national identity during the Boer War and the First World War, and they are fortunate that this occurred in the photographic era. They were even luckier that cameras had become as portable as rifles! I'm hoping the publishers get a good response, and that we get some fascinating, previously unknown images.

12 April 2007

Rocket Science

For those traveling to Germany for a vacation, and willing to go off the tourists' beaten track, there's an opportunity to learn more about the Second World War V-weapons program on the island of Usedom at the Historical Technical Information Center there. The Center is opening a Memorial Landscape this summer that allows visitors to see the sites used for testing.

11 April 2007

Broken Arrow

One of the things that I noted during my hiatus was this gloomy perspective on the future of the Army. It's another piece of evidence in the case against the Bush administration for trying to fight a major overseas war on the cheap. At the end of the day, all the talk about supporting our fighting men and women overseas is useless unless it is backed up by the necessary sacrifices on the home front. If average Americans don't want to make those sacrifices, then there is no choice but to reduce engagements abroad.

10 April 2007

Missing in Action

Well, a variety of factors have kept me from blogging for the past month. I'm hoping that regular posts will resume more or less as of now. For the moment, I'd like to note that this book has received a big boost in sales owing to this film. Which is a shame because I think this book covers the topic better. However, if you like Ernle Bradford, I'd recommend this book, which I found entertaining many years ago in the 1970s.

29 March 2007

Rescue Ship

I found a new blog, duly added to my roll, and an interesting note about the future of HMCS Sackville, which people have been able to visit in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but maybe not for much longer.

Edited 10/iv/07
I messed up the link originally, but it should work now.

27 March 2007

What Kind of War

An interesting piece of news analysis reports on the new American strategy in Iraq, taking troops out of the secure bases on the outskirts of towns and redistributing them in 'penny packets' within urban areas. I find it curious they bring up the French experience in Algeria, which while seemingly succesful, proved a public-relations disaster on so many levels.

Unfortunately for the Army, I think the War in Iraq is rapidly turning into a conflict where the operational approach is increasingly irrelevant to victory. The original mission was clear-cut: take out Saddam Hussein. Now it's muddled. Construct a regime that will not be influenced by those hostile to America's interests in the Middle East (Iranian-backed Shias), nor can be tainted by the anti-democratic regimes of Iraq's past (minority Sunni rule), but will not threaten our close allies (hated Israel and the fossilized Saudi monarchy), and will keep the oil flowing (avoid an all-out civil war).

06 March 2007

Mosier vs the British, Round One

Yesterday, I wrote a little about John Mosier's controversial The Myth of the Great War. I decided to make a full reconnaissance into the book, and read the chapter on the Battle of the Marne straight through, rather than rely on the sampling of shorter sections I'd done previously.

On the basis of this chapter, I'd have to say the fury with which Britons have greeted Mosier's work is an overreaction. For English-language readers, the role played by the French in the war has always been understated. No matter how much the British suffered, the French had it worse. The lead review on the Amazon page linked above is particularly egregious in wanting to focus, yet again, on Neuve Chappelle and Vimy Ridge, where the British fought, in spite of the considerable coverage this attack has received compared with the French attack in the Vosges.

That said, the end of the Battle of the Marne chapter really seems to verge on German propaganda. The Germans, short of ammunition, with extended supply lines, and not enough troops to secure them, retreat, but Mosier appears to want us to regard this as "an advance to the rear". The chapter itself discusses battles around Verdun where stout French resistance halts the Germans, and it is subsequent to this that German officers decide to withdraw to a more easily defended position. While the Marne campaign may not have been the "miracle of Marne" of Allied belief, I see no reason to excuse the Germans from having experienced a major setback.

However, the cry of rage emanating from the British Corps of Historians seems unwarranted. That Mosier minimizes the role of the BEF, while promoting a lesser-known Franco-German combat far from Paris, is a matter I would have thought worthy of further discussion, not wholesale censure. Round One to Mosier, I think, on points.

05 March 2007

"The Myth of the Great War" - the Lusitania

This was the title of a 2001 book by John Mosier, not a military historian but a professor of English with an interest in military history. I remember when it came out as being somewhat controversial among British reviewers. (It goes completely against the 'party line' among British historians concerning the BEF.) It did garner a Pulitzer Prize nomination, not that that's necessarily a recommendation, given the manipulation of American publishing prizes.

You'll find a very negative discussion of it by some Brits here. Unfortunately, these comments are long on indignation and short on specific criticism, which I always find is an almost certain indication that the book makes a valued contribution to our understanding of the subject! However, the lead review at the Amazon link quoted above makes some pointed criticisms that should lead one to approach Mosier's book with caution.

Anyway, I'm not in a position to offer a criticism at the moment, never having read it. I'm here to offer a quote that in the circumstances of my "Wilson's War" obsession I found worth including here:

The extent of the aid given before America's formal declaration of war has traditionally been passed over in silence. Neither Allied apologists nor American defenders of President Wilson have been anxious to draw attention to the massive level of American support...Bryan, Wilson's first secretary of state, genuinely wanted America to remain neutral, but he was undercut at every turn, and resigned in protest over the handling of the Lusitania sinking...when a senator pointed out - correctly - that the Lusitania was carrying armaments to Great Britain, he was saved from impeachment only by the testimony of the Harbor Master of the Port of New York. [pp 304-305]

27 February 2007

Binh Gia

I'm editing a book about the Vietnam War at the moment, and while checking some facts over the Internet I came across this account about the Battle of Binh Gia in December 1964. There's also some interesting contemporary anaylsis toward the end of this description of airmobile operational doctrinal developments.

Between the Lines

I find the concept of parapolitics "a system or practice of politics in which accountability is consciously diminished" useful for understanding something like this. Study this article carefully, and here is what you see:

a) The source of the rumour is British.
b) The British prime minister has expressed a view that coincides with the view of the potential resignees.
c) A Pentagon source appears to have been selectively quoted; his or her views could easily be contrary to the rumour.

One could easily conclude that this is a British signal to the Bush administration to lay off Iran, that the British cannot be counted on to support an attack. It could even be a call by the British to anyone in the American military with misgivings about an attack on Iran to look to them for help.

Articles like this always make me suspicious of neatly packaged historical descriptions. Real life is a lot more messy.

19 February 2007

Loose Change 1917 or Loose Change 1941?

Silence is golden, unless you're a blogger. I've been diverted by a variety of other matters the past week, mostly preparing for the sale of my house and getting some major dental work.

The BBC showed a documentary about conspiracy theories concerning the events of 9/11, 2001, last night. The main target was the now famous Loose Change video. Unfortunately, I fell asleep part-way through, but I saw enough to realize the BBC film made cogent points in support of the gang of terrorists “conspiracy” as opposed to the U.S. government “conspiracy”. There’s one caveat to this, however, which is that the programme suggested strongly the likelihood of a cover-up of the pre-strike intelligence analysis.

It isn’t the first time that a surprise attack on America has been the subject of a conspiracy theory. Howard Baker’s famous Watergate interrogation “What did the president know and when did he know it?” would have been very appropriate for Michigan senator Homer Ferguson.

In fact, the whole question of the validity of conspiracy theories is of far greater import to the general reader, as opposed to the “professional historian”. The latter has no choice but to discount such theories, since there is rarely any evidence in the form of letters or minutes or notes to sustain the idea that, for example, President Roosevelt knew the Japanese were coming, or that Robert Lansing worked for American entry into the war against the Kaiser. There wouldn’t be, would there, ripostes the person more familiar with chit-chat in the corridors of power. I’ll return to this matter in the light of the work of a totally discredited “popular historian”, the notorious David Irving, as I start a new strand on this blog.

09 February 2007

Three generations

'The current cost of occupation in Iraq is $12 billion dollars per month, and we may need to remain in the region for the next 25-50 years.'

This comment comes from this article, and probably as a bald statement of fact would seem shocking to many Americans. 50 years? A war we intend to bequeathe to our great-grandchildren?

What's 2007-1945? 62 years.