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?