24 October 2008

Stress Test

I'm finding this M.A. course enjoyable, but a bit overwhelming. There's always something needing to be done, and it's going to get worse before it gets better - rather like the economy, it seems.

To my surprise, I'm finding my US History 1877-1920 seminars and my teaching assistant duties more stimulating than my two war-related courses. I do wonder, though, whether I've reached a high-water-mark on the US stuff. We just did David Montgomery's The Fall of the House of Labor, which is a real monument in many ways. The description of how work was organized in the 1870s and then reorganized at the beginning of the twentieth century opened a whole new perspective on what Marx thought socialism might mean, in contrast with how it came to be implemented. It'll be hard to top that for giving me a new angle on a major influence on my thinking. I don't think St Augustine or Macchiavelli were key figures in this era in American history.

Meanwhile, another Montgomery, the British field marshal of Normandy fame, popped up in another seminar course. In contrast to the stimulating labour history, it seemed more of the same stuff I've been handling for twenty years. It gets repackaged every ten years or so, when someone expands the frontiers of our knowledge by looking at a different level of action. But nothing I've yet seen really retrieves Monty's reputation. (Which is one reason why I left Britain to do a degree - you can't be against Monty and hope to get on in the world of professional military history in Britain.) The soldier on the course rushed to defend the monumental reputation of this horrid, vain man. But his defence seemed more appropriate to a Lloyd George vs the generals argument than armchair strategists + American generals vs a British general. At the end of the day, for me, Monty was his own worst enemy. If he hadn't claimed to be a genius, I probably would regard him as a workmanlike wartime commander.

To sidestep my old hobbyhorse of the Master of Battle, I thought I'd share this, which was on a handout given by Whitney Lackenbauer, who is prof on my War & Society in the 20th Century seminar, where we discussed Montgomery. This is from the week before, when we covered Hong Kong 1941 and Dieppe 1942. It's a single sheet, on which Professor Lackenbauer has written 'Dieppe', and is entitled 'The Lessons Learnt'.

338. Unless the means for the provision of overwhelming close support are available, assaults should be planned to develop round the flanks of a strongly defended locality rather than frontally against it.

Yes, that would do it.

28 September 2008

Ottawa, nous avons un problème

The Canadian War Museum has unveiled an excellent set of web pages related to Canada's experience of the First World War. However, there's an absence on this page among the exhibits that begs a question - could they find nothing about opposition to conscription among French speakers?

20 September 2008

Dulce et decorum non est

Mannie Gentile, who works at the Antietam battlefield park, assembled a diorama on his lawn depicting events that occurred in the fighting over Bloody Lane on 17 September 1862. He used unpainted toy soldiers, with some very detailed flags, and in between the photos taken at various stages of the project he has inserted excerpts from the Official Records or from other books about the American Civil War.

What struck me about the Official Records excerpts was how they utilize familiar expressions that we would expect to see in an account of a mid-19th-century battle. 'Quick and deadly thunderbolt' and 'men falling thick and fast' sound too much like well practiced rhetoric to me to really convey the nature of the battle. By contrast, the photos of toy soldiers, often taken in close up, are more effective in conveying an absolute chaos. Smoke emerges from lines of riflemen, the dead confront the next wave of living as the battle flows forward. As if in a movie, one moment we catch a shot of a flag, and another of ranks of men surging up against a rail fence. Yet, in the end, we are none the wiser as to what actually happened. The rebel position is flanked and rebel units then flee as the biter is bit. Without maps illustrating different stages of the battle, we are left with an amorphous account of the engagement that gives us some appreciation of what it might have been like to be present as a 'war reporter', but no real understanding of the operational art involved.

This is not to criticize, exactly. I think Mannie Gentile's technique offers a superb alternative to those neat maps. Imagine if what you saw were things like Mannie's photos, and you had to compile something that went into the Official Records. You would more than likely end up using rhetorical devices to fill in the gaps between simple facts. Union soldiers attacked us. We fired at them. They fired at us. They fled. We charged after them.

It's all rather bald and does no credit to the 'honoured dead' or 'glorious dead' as they would become known. For thousands of human beings, life stopped that September day. Their memories perished just as much as their physical bodies. Whatever value they were perceived to have among friends, family and community was lost forever. For any morally sensitive human being who witnessed these individual tragedies, better to commemorate them with purplish prose and a structured account than to give in to some kind of amoral, heartless chaos that sweeps all before it. That can be left to those more distant in time.

Hat tip to Brett Schulte.

18 September 2008

Disorganization and American Failure in the War on Terror

For a seminar today, I've had to read an article that appeared in The Historical Journal in 2007, 'The Current State of Military History', by Mark Moyar of the USMC University. Mostly it is a refutation of points made by the British military historian Jeremy Black, in his book Rethinking Military History. However, there's an interesting nugget about the American problems in fighting the war in the Middle East.

Moyar mentions three books (among around a hundred in the article) that cover the Global War on Terrorism.
[Sean] Naylor shows how flawed high-level political guidance, ineffective employment of allied fighter and poor co-ordination among military organizations led to a fiasco.
[Bing] West faults senior US civilian and military leaders for disorganization and ignorance of Iraqi politics and culture.
[Steve] Coll shows...the US effort was hampered by interagency squabbling and lack of strategic direction.

These three summaries may reflect Moyar's interpretations more than the reality, but if not, that's a severe indictment of the American system of waging war in the Middle East. At the highest levels, American leaders don't know what they are doing. At intermediate levels, the managers of American security agencies cannot co-operate. At the lowest levels, the ability to co-ordinate operations with local allies seems to be flawed, although this appears to be the fault of higher-level direction.

The fact that this is not being discussed openly, as far as I can tell, during an election campaign, suggests that nothing will change in the foreseeable future. I pity the parents of America's fighting men and women.

Links to the books:
Steve Coll
Sean Naylor
Bing West

15 September 2008

Comfort Women Project

This cropped up on my daily rounds. It's interesting that the blog's author regards the crimes against the 'Comfort Women' as having gone largely unacknowledged. I'm not sure I'd agree with that. However, traditional (and bestselling) military history often focuses too much on campaigns and not enough on the other aspects of war, and I can see how in that context one might sense it had gone unacknowledged. Also, I don't recall whether anyone was actually tried for the systematic abuse of women in this way as a war crime. I'd be surprised if someone had been in the 1940s, especially in an Asian context where the dominant White Powers tended to have little regard for the lot of Asian women. I hope the museum can maintain its funding, as having an institution devoted to pursuing this matter can only help.

Buruma on the legacy of Munich

Ian Buruma is a thoughtful writer, whom I used to read regularly in the New York Review of Books. He's written an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times on the 'lessons' of Munich. The role of the Munich Agreement in American political discourse is, of course, fascinating. Yet one rarely hears Europeans using its example, unless they are arguing about how their country should be supporting America.
Buruma's general point is that European democracies in particular have reached a point where they ought to make up their minds whether to shelter behind America's shield, or whether the time has come for them to pursue a more independent line and accept the consequences. The problem is that Buruma refers to 'Europe' as some kind of collective entity. While the European Commission would probably like it so, the reality is that Europeans, individually, clearly do not. The British, for example, have a very strong bilateral relationship with the United States. The French less so. I don't see either of these two changing their views in my lifetime.
In fact, the Munich crisis, so beloved of American opinion-formers, was a peculiarly European event, arguably the last gasp of the old Congress System approach to resolving European crises. In the tradition of European diplomacy, it was the formal acknowledgment by all the European powers of Hitler's (and Germany's) leading role on the Continent. By expectation, he should have thereafter played by the rules.
In a European context, opposition to Munich could only be defined in one of two ways. On the one hand, you could be endorsing a common front with the Soviet Union against Fascism, surely anathema to American politicians de nos jours. On the other, you could be demanding the reimposition of the Versailles settlement. This is a bit trickier to reconstruct into an American context, and perhaps I ought to return to it in another post, where I can do the subject justice.

7th Armored Division at St Vith

A site named the European Center for Military History has posted an after-action report of the 7th Armored Division (US) during the battle of St Vith, part of the Battle of the Bulge. If, like me, you have no experience of military operations yet are interested in how a modern battle is managed, you'll find little nuggets. For example, what do you think divisional HQ sent first to the operational area? What caused the division HQ to lose telephone communication with corps HQ at the start of the battle? In answer to the first, the advanced billeting parties. To the second, the corps HQ moved. To see a similar report for Combat Command B would also be of interest, giving a slightly different perspective on the whole engagement.

10 September 2008

Phoenix in the Desert?

In the news, we find assertions that the United States is secretly hunting opponents in the Global War on Terror in Iraq and assassinating them. Famed journalist Bob Woodward implies that there is some kind of technological trickery involved here, as his parallel is the Second World War's Manhattan Project. Well, time will eventually reveal whether his is the right parallel.

In the mean time, we could speculate that all we are seeing is a new Phoenix Program, the campaign of assassination conducted in Vietnam. The standard text on this appears to be Douglas Valentine's 1990 book, which you can read an excerpt from here. Opponents of the war tend to seize on such organized murder campaigns as somehow inherently evil.

Yet war will always throw up such schemes, as leaders look to every weapon at their disposal to win. Sometimes, even liberal opponents of war might view the victim as deserving exactly what he got. We even find, outside of war and causing war, conspiracies in which one leader may attempt to assassinate another.

09 September 2008

Meeting My Waterloo

I've arrived in Waterloo, Ontario, and have settled into a small bachelor apartment as I begin my academic year at Wilfrid Laurier University. I hope the hiatus in postings on this blog will be at an end, but I still have to get into a routine, so although posting frequency may increase, it might remain erratic for a little longer.

28 August 2008

Slow Time

Apologies to those visiting here in the hope of finding some new content for the past two months. I've had all sorts of problems, worst of all the double mastectomy that my wife has suffered. Thankfully she is on the mend, and all the cancer was excised so will not require further cancer treatment. I've also been preparing to go to Canada, to begin an MA in History, with an intent on focusing on war memorials. I depart this weekend, I think. Owing to the illness, the family are to remain behind. So, though lonely, I ought to have plenty of stimulating ideas for this blog while I do research.

In the mean time, I've been doing a few days' work each week at History Today magazine. It's a great place to be, and I was very grateful to the staff here who have tolerated my unreasonable working hours during the illness. (Arriving late, leaving late.) Recently, I drew up a brief chronology for the last months of the First World War, and I noticed something that rarely gets a nod.

It takes a long time to achieve something like an armistice, or at least it did then. The German commanders, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff, decided to throw in their hand on 29 September 1918, yet the armistice did not occur until 11 November, forty-four days later. Furthermore, it took five days for the German government to act on their generals' request, in part because there was a change in chancellor during that time. Therefore, the request wasn't received by President Wilson until 4 October. He waited another four days before telling his colleagues David Lloyd George of Britain and Georges Clemenceau of France. (They knew already, though, having broken the German codes to Switzerland.)

Finally, no-one had actually prepared for this moment among the Allies, so they took more time drawing up some terms of the Armistice. The whole business is described in a 1997 book by Bullitt Lowry, Armistice 1918. Worth a look if you're interested in the processes of government.

07 July 2008

Where are your falling Great Powers now?

Paul Kennedy's influential book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers came out in 1987 and captured the spirit of the age. As the Soviet Union crumbled, the cost to the United States of winning the Cold War would act as a millstone, and the gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) decline that affected Imperial Spain, Napoleonic France, and nautical Britain would claim, inexorably, another victim.

Not so fast! Is there a legitimate challenger to the United States' New World Order (instituted under the first Bush presidency)? Japan's approaching economic dominance disappeared in a credit crisis that lasted over a decade. Germany reunified itself, and found the costs too great. Britain and France, members of the nuclear club, were never in a position to threaten American economic might. China had been a Yellow Peril almost a century earlier, but still was very much a potential Peril, and not anything real. That was about it, circa 1987. Subsequently, India has pursued a continuing bid for regional power, but has not yet shown any inclination to be a Great Power, one that might be invited to a Congress of Berlin or suchlike.

Furthermore, it's not really clear to those of us confronting the credit crisis in the trans-Atlantic economies just how much this problem has got worldwide ramifications. China's economic progress could be badly derailed by the current problems, especially if her economic leaders mismanage things as poorly as it is claimed Bernanke has.

Actually, I think Kennedy's underlying principle, that there are such things as countries that constitute Great Powers, was flawed at the outset; and thus isn't really much help in understanding history, particularly military history. In fact, while we're all fretting about what to do with the nation-state in a globalizing world, we're actually missing the point.

(to be continued)

01 July 2008

Absence apologies

Apologies for not being around for almost a month. I have been preoccupied with my impending move to Canada and also with another blogging project, not yet ready for public viewing, called De civitate sabermetricarum. I hope to resume posts here in the next day or two, addressing a key future issue for military history tangentially inspired by Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.

04 June 2008

Stay out of a ghetto

I've been reading the manuscript of a book about baseball managers by a friend of mine, due to be published by McFarland. It occurs to me that, with all the anxiety over the future of military history in the University, that there are some issues that relate to an historical examination of baseball in particular and sports in general that parallel what has happened over the decades with military history.

There's a reason for this, in that both sports seasons and military campaigns provide a narrative of events with a beginning, middle and end. This is not exactly true of history in its more general sense, except where biography is the template. Yet my friend, a trained historian, has identified something that I am not sure has ever been studied, which is the institutionalization of the concept of "the fundamentals". Early professional baseball managers and captains made things up as they went along, whereas today's managers pretty much have a framework through which players move and arrive knowing what is expected of them in a major-league game. The process by which that institutionalization arose is not well studied.

The kind of program described in this outline of a Spanish digital journal, Military History, suggests that academic military history could easily avoid its endangered status by casting its net wider:
Military History Digital Journal is an interdisciplinary journal, created by a group of history scholars and scholars in other disciplines. Our interests are diverse, and not simply restricted to the conventional study of history; we also explore the portrayal of war through the media of art, cinema and literature. Our field of interest is wide-ranging, and does not focus on any particular historical age. Research papers on terrorism, civil-military relations, military thought, warfare and technology, and politics during conflict are equally embraced.

Hat-tip to ubiwar.com.

23 May 2008

The Development of the British Way of War in the Napoleonic Era

One of the great tensions of the British war effort during the First World War was the struggle between "Easterners" and "Westerners" as to the overall strategic direction of the war. (You'll find one man's view of the struggle both during and after the war in this pdf.) The Germans more or less enforced the victory of the latter, through their success in the field over Russia, leading to a somewhat uncharacteristically British victory in the field over the main force of a continental enemy.

In my experience, if you wanted to work in the British military history establishment during the 1980s, it was necessary to write a work praising Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Subsequently, British military historians moved to the British Expeditionary Force of 1918, which exonerates that villain of the 1950s and 1960s, Field Marshal Douglas Haig. The funny thing here is that both, in different ways, basically fit the NATO model for the British army of the 1949-91 era. Thus we see, once again, how the historian's work is mobilized for public-policy ends.

I don't have, exactly, an contrasting position to set against the British Establishment view. However, one could start constructing one by examining the role of the Royal Navy in Wellington's 1813 campaign in the Peninsular War. Rather than devote a long series to my theme, I want to use one specific incident to illustrate my point.

During his 1812 campaign, Wellington had failed in laying siege to Burgos, a key communications centre in the French line of supply that connected their occupation armies in Spain to France. In October, he abandoned the effort and withdrew his army into winter quarters at Ciudad Rodrigo. Given leisure to think, he developed the ideal campaign to capitalize on something that happened while he was fighting his 1812 campaign, including his great victory at Salamanca.

During the summer of 1812, a small squadron of British ships, including the 74-gun ship-of-the-line HMS Venerable, sailed off the coast of northern Spain, giving aid to Spanish guerrillas. With Napoleonic armies in the field dependent on supply trains that were vulnerable to guerrilla raids, these Spanish irregulars were invaluable to Wellington's campaigns. The Royal Navy did all it could to ensure the guerrillas received whatever help could be delivered. They also assisted the guerrillas in operations directed against ports under French control. You can find an account of the Royal Navy's landing forces in this online version of James's Naval History of Great Britain.

The next page after the one I've linked to describes the taking of Santander in August 1812. Wellington realized that if the Royal Navy could land supplies there and transport them to his army in the field, he could bypass Burgos, and force the French either to fight for the place or abandon it. The campaign resulted in the Battle of Vitoria, the last major battle of the Peninsular War in Spain, and the defeat of the French occupying army.

Where Haig and Montgomery worked within coalitions, engaging the main enemy force, Wellington and the Royal Navy conducted an independent campaign on the fringes of the main theatre, but one which played an important role in winning the war against Napoleon. There has always been a line of thought in modern British military thinking that followed the Peninsular War logic - fight on occupied territory, fix the enemy on your main force, attack his supply network with the navy, and take advantage of any resistance movement to his occupation. It more or less was the strategy Churchill embraced after the Germans were defeated in the Battle of Britain, and informed many of the disputes the British had with the Americans in 1942-4. However, after 1945 it seems to have fallen entirely out of favour with the British military establishment. During the Cold War that seemed practical enough, since Britain lacked the military force to withstand a Soviet onslaught on its own. But nowadays? Has the time come to rediscover a uniquely British Way of War?

10 May 2008

10 May Roundup

Here are a couple of links that I left unposted while working on my Nicholson Baker series.

- The Duke of Wellington reportedly referred in 1809 to some troops of his being able to "terrify me". The fact is, the British Army in the 18th and 19th century, like most professional armies of the time, relied on recruits from the poorer sections of society, and probably with a higher number of criminals than society as a whole. It seems the American army is going down the same path.

- Higher rates of survivability than previous wars are occurring in Iraq (a trend that deserves some historical study, perhaps), which is creating an interesting problem related to pensions and medical care. (Included in this article is a reference to the experimental use of animals, if such issues move you.)

08 May 2008

Nicholson Baker's World Wars - Part 6

It makes sense to end this long and tortuous exploration of the issues raised by the publication of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke today, the 63d anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, because one would think, given the response to Baker's work, that the war had not ended.

I like to think of Baker's work in the same way as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The GULAG Archipelago is subtitled: "A Literary Investigation". Unlike the Christian Solzhenitsyn, whose book is suffused with a faith inspired by the Suffering Servant, Baker engages in a rather utilitarian argument - did intervention cause more damage? Yet this kind of utilitarianism is necessarily callous. I doubt the effects of implementing the Madagascar Plan would compare all that favourably with the Middle Passage. Corpses would still pile up somewhere, if not to be transformed into smoke. Neither of these books is a work of scientific history, but rather a literary account of an historical event. However, having said that, we uncover the real problem with Human Smoke which to some extent makes the critical response understandable, but not justifiable.

Baker's book restores to prominence the Isolationist Argument, that the United States of America could gain little from intervention in a European war, that America's long-term interests were best served by staying out and dealing with the consequences of the war in due course. For a Briton in 1941, this thesis must be opposed by a propaganda assault - national survival was at stake. However, in the context of 2008, attacking it with the vehemence with which Baker's work has been greeted suggests the continued difficulty of letting go of the war, and recognizing that American interests and British interests may diverge. This is dishonest history. The same dishonesty applies to Americans invoking the Interventionist Argument to the exclusion of all others. Again, the war has not ended for them. Baker, too, is guilty of dishonest history, although he has legitimately more reason to present his case, since the Isolationist Argument is still subject to the same propaganda effort that began in wartime. There's plenty of readily available material that continues to treat the Isolationist Argument on anything but its own merits, even in presidential debates:
McCain said Paul is promoting isolationism in calling for the United States to disengage from the war. "We allowed (Adolf) Hitler to come to power with that attitude of isolation," he said.

History, despite what many of the lions of book review pages might attempt to assert in their texts, should be morally neutral. It is a record of acts, selected and weighted according to judgment (and thus morality) by individuals, but the record itself is without moral meaning. Thus, confronted with a text like Human Smoke, the correct response is not to condemn it as wrong, but rather to remind us that the fight for American entry into the war was at times a bitter one, and not properly resolved through internal political debate.

I return to my general theme - History, especially military, is Politics by another means. What is going on is not an honest debate about the proper place in history of Isolationism, but a continuing propaganda war over the role of the United States in the wider world. In this sense, Baker has missed the target. The strongest force in America First Isolationism was not the kind of American pacifism that Baker endorses, but an ancestral relation (the husband of a great-aunt, so to speak) of the Unilateralist approach that resulted in the War in Iraq. Had he really wanted to make the kind of case he wanted, he should instead have focused on the First World War. And hence, my plural title.


06 May 2008

Nicholson Baker's World Wars - part 5

The concept of a "Whig interpretation" of history is well established, but one could equally identify what might be called an Atlanticist Interpretation that is at work on the popular understanding of events leading up to the Second World War. Let us review some of the tenets of the Atlanticist Interpretation.

(1) The Treaty of Versailles in 1919, ending the war between the Allies and Germany, was too harsh; and was responsible for the rise of Hitler.
The problem with this statement starts with what it omits, and we do well to recall, "There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know." We know that from the outset a significant portion of the German public regarded the terms as harsh. But that equally suggests they would have regarded any terms short of the status quo ante as harsh. Germans had reason to believe that they were not defeated in the war, but only on the Western Front. They had inflicted a severed defeat on the Russian Empire, and imposed a far harsher treaty on its successor, the Soviet Union. In these circumstances, anything more than the retrocession of the former French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, and the payment of an indemnity for costs might have seemed unreasonable.
The idea that the harshness of the treaty was directly responsible for the rise of Hitler is not only simple-minded, it was the argument of that arch-appeaser, Britain's Neville Chamberlain. He believed that if the harsh Versailles conditions were eliminated, Germany would be content. Yet very little of the sternest measures remained in effect by the time Hitler came to power in 1933. We know that the German army at first tried to train secretly men via the veterans' organizations that sprang up in the aftermath of the war. In 1927, the Inter-Allied Military Control Commission, the rather feeble watchdog appointed to ensure German compliance with the treaty, was abolished, and the German army was more or less free to do whatever secret activities it wanted. The reparations Germany had to pay were cancelled in 1932. After that, Hitler moved fast to remove all the other Versailles clauses. In 1935, he renounced the terms denying them an air force, and reinstated conscription. In that same year an Anglo-German naval understanding of 1935 lifted restrictions on the German navy's size and allowed the construction of U-boats again. By the time Hitler marched into the Rhineland in 1936, the only outstanding treaty conditions related to the Germany's borders to the south and east. These objections were overcome one-by-one until the Danzig crisis precipitated the Second World War. If the treaty as it pertained on August 31, 1939, was still too harsh, one wonders if the Germans would have accepted anything short of a declaration of their victory.

(2) Appeasing Hitler only fed his appetite for more conquest.
I find myself wondering whether this is a cum hoc ergo propter hoc type argument. What it omits is the fact that this is indeed what happened. The appeasers gave in to Hitler, so of course he asked for more. But there's evidence that he wanted to ask for exactly what he got anyway, in the form of the Hossbach Memorandum. This document, produced in November 1937, made clear his intention to seize control of Austria and Czechoslovakia in a war. In fact, in the document, Hitler believes war will come first, providing him with the opportunity to seize these neighbours. Poland doesn't enter into it. Hitler's book Mein Kampf predicts a war against the Soviet Union (in alliance with Italy and Britain) that basically aimed to restore the Brest-Litovsk Treaty settlement. (Finally realized with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.) So the idea that Hitler became progressively emboldened is just wrongheaded. Hitler wanted Austria and Czechoslovakia from the start. The Munich agreement was simply a stage along an already-existing ambition. Whether appeasement fed his appetite for a crisis over Danzig is more arguable. The fact that he mentions the coming Soviet war in Mein Kampf suggests that some kind of move eastwards was on his agenda in any case, but that he might have tolerated a Poland that joined with him is suggested by the 1934 Polish-German Non-Aggression treaty. In this case "there are known knowns. There are things we know we know."

(3) Hitler was [a madman] intent on world domination.
The simple (and true) statement that Hitler was a patriotic German politician is often lost in the meteoric path of his career. Whether he intended for Germany to become the greatest power in the world in his lifetime is by no means as clear as the "Hitler Legend" encourages us to believe. In the Zweites Buch, he clearly envisions an eventual showdown with the United States, but unlike his more personal vision of the original volume, this showdown is placed in the more distant future, the last fifth of the twentieth century. In 1980, Hitler would have been 91, and there is all sorts of speculation about his health that suggest he wouldn't have made it that far. Without taking on the United States, Hitler would never be able to claim world domination. Thus, if Hitler had any vision for world domination, he probably believed that it would fall to the next generation of Nazis to contend for it. However, it's not difficult to perceive that Hitler viewed Germany's rightful place as the arbiter of Europe. This sentiment owes more to Bismarck and Metternich than Blofeld. A corollary to the world domination thesis is that Hitler was mad to want such a thing. However, if as I suggest he didn't want it, it punctures the madman thesis. In this case, the Atlanticist Interpretation's omission is based on concealing some flimsy evidence.

(4) Isolationists in the United States underestimated the threat posed by Hitler.
One is forced into this point by accepting point (3). So if point (3) is rejected, point (4) is rendered partially invalid. Without doubt, a relatively united Europe led by a Germany antagonistic to American interests would pose some kind of threat. The omission here rests on their being too many variables for normal people to pretend to know how serious this threat would be. "There are unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know." At the end of the day, the Isolationists did underestimate the threat, because Hitler declared war on the United States. But Hitler only did that because he knew that sooner or later Roosevelt would manoeuvre him into a situation where he would be forced either to act against the United States or make a humiliating climb down. Roosevelt pursued this strategy with some success against Japan. His use of the U.S. Navy to confront the German U-boats in the Atlantic gave the president plenty of opportunities to provoke Hitler.

Part of Nicholson Baker's avowed intention in writing Human Smoke was because he "didn't understand it". One of the reasons is that we still seem to be fighting the propaganda war.

(to be continued)

02 May 2008

Nicholson Baker's World Wars - Part 4

Reviewers (especially British ones) of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke seem to have lost sight of an important fact. In 1938, London ruled over something like a quarter of the world. This wasn't any federal system, but more of a hodgepodge of regimes that had a direct relationship to the British monarchy. (Like the Trinity, the British monarchy is actually made up of multiple persons, in this case the Crown and Parliament.) If you were white, and living in the right place, you had some control over your affairs through local parliaments that let themselves be bound by London's foreign policy. If you weren't white, or lived in the wrong place, more than likely you had to do what you were told.

For some Americans, this situation was something to be protested. If an American opposed segregation, lynch law and the less lethal effects of prejudice against African-Americans, there was little in Britain's behaviour in its colonies to lend any regard to the Mother of Parliaments at Westminster. If you were a Zionist, or even just not hostile to Zionism, British conduct in Palestine during the 1930s, when it halted Jewish settlement, supplied grounds for Anglophobia. And one of the most vehement champions of the empire was the discredited Tory politician Winston Churchill.

As an American who did not see anything particularly democratic about government in London, where half the legislature were the sons of aristocrats who owed their place in authority to the fortunes of birth, one could also stand on an Atlantic shore, look east, and wonder just how much Europe's troubles really mattered. Your country has a strong navy. Aeroplanes can't fly three or four thousand miles easily, as Lindbergh's flight illustrated. (He was flying on fumes at the end.) The fields of the republic rolling westwards behind you are rich in natural resources, well developed, with an educated work force and plenty of entrepreneurial spirit.

How, in practical terms to this American, might the Nazi Reich in April 1940 differ from the Kaiser's Reich in May 1915? Both were undemocratic regimes where anti-Semitism was rampant. Both were militarized societies where accidents of birth counted for more than talent in securing social prestige. (If anything, Herr Hitler represented a more progressive situation, if a less cultured one.) Both were hotly opposed to left-wing socialist thinking. Both were aggressive states which had thrust Europe into conflict. The United States had little to show (except casualties) for Wilson's folly in 1917, as his political opponents declined to participate in his potentially catastrophic schemes to hamper the United States' freedom of action in diplomacy. We had pulled the chestnuts of a beleaguered British aristocracy - fat on the profits sucked out of India, Africa, and the Orient - out of the fire once before. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Baker is not embracing this argument in its entirety. He is coming at the war from an American perspective but in a more idealistic mode. However, what is curious in the response to Baker's book, the fact that a perfectly respectable political coalition was active in the United States during the period covered by Baker's book is glossed over. The coalition embraced pacifists like Baker, but also at least one ex-president and several senators of progressive, anti-corporate views - as well as the heroic aviator Charles Lindbergh.

What killed the coalition, which was focused on keeping America out of the European war, was not a sudden understanding of the true nature of the Nazis, nor the manipulations of Anglophile propaganda, but the diplomatic manouevres of the Roosevelt administration toward Japan. These gradually strengthened the hands of hard-liners in Tokyo, until they were able to compel a strategy of attack. All except the pacifist anti-war Americans could hardly sustain their position with the country under attack.

We are back to J. H. Plumb's Past, or as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once said - "it is only...present experience, our present reconstruction of the past,that is real, not the past as such." So what is this past that weighs so heavily on the critical response to Human Smoke, and how do its sins of omission actually constitute not history, but politics?

(to be continued)

01 May 2008

Nicholson Baker's World Wars - Part 3

Foreigners seeking to comment on American phenomena neglect the history of the United States at their peril. Much of the historical criticism about Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke seems oblivious of American history outside of the tropes presented by Hollywood and television. The "American History Highlight Show" usually leaps directly from the Revolution to the Civil War with, if we're lucky, a nod to Manifest Destiny.

This all overlooks the vitally important period between the end of the War of 1812 (in 1815) and the Slavocracy Crisis of the 1850s, when the real fundamentals of the American national character were laid down. The Melting Pot really began in this period. The democratic ideals of America bore real fruit with the ending of established churches in the states, of property qualifications for office-holding and voting, and the creation of political machines to ensure party control of offices throughout a community. The American fascination with cults and social experiments also blossomed, especially in New England and upstate New York, and the cultural outliers of this area in northern Ohio and Michigan.

The New York Peace Society was founded in August 1815, arguably the first organized peace movement in modern history. Similar societies emerged elsewhere (notably Massachusetts and Maine) and banded together in 1828 as the American Peace Society. (Elihu Burritt is characteristic of those who sparked this movement.) This peace movement was thoroughly Christian (usually of evangelical bent) and believed that a system of international law would be the best preventer of war. A speech by Charles Sumner, the famous abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, who embraced some of the principles, made it clear that the main objective was to establish a system of international arbitration to resolve disputes.

The peace movement, which came to include the Universal Peace Union, founded in 1866, was profoundly influential both in the United States and in the rest of the world. The Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907 owed much to the efforts of peace campaigners both in the United States and in the rest of the world. The United States under both Republican and Democratic administrations signed a number of arbitration treaties during 1908-14, although the Senate often hedged them with conditions that effectively emasculated them.

In the 1930s, the neutrality acts passed by Congress attempted to address what the peace campaigners might have regarded as their greatest betrayal, when Woodrow Wilson rode Republican support to take the United States into the First World War. The Neutrality Act developed in the wake of the great Democratic victory in the Congressional elections of 1934. (A rare occasion of the incumbent president's party actually gaining seats in mid-term.) At first it was limited to six months duration, then extended for a year, then made permanent in 1937. Although these acts are traditionally associated with "isolationism", they attracted the support of pacifists in the American tradition.

The Second World War as Plumbian Past, as opposed to scientific History, caricatures these isolationists as an inchoate group of Nazi sympathizers or useful idiots and utopian idealists. Yet Baker's interviews show that he is in reviving a point that was very relevant to the world of 1937-41, but has been obscured by post-1945 events.

(to be continued)

30 April 2008

Nicholson Baker's World Wars - Part 2

To understand Baker's own mentality in writing this book, one could do a lot worse than look at the interview he gave to the Barnes & Noble Review. It is long, and his interlocutor sympathetic - thus successfully teases out what was going on in Baker's head. (A shorter, but almost as effective alternative is here.)We find that, as I suggested yesterday, he does indeed attempt to present the story of the Second World War up to December 31, 1941, as one individual might have perceived it at the time. He even names the person - Christopher Isherwood, a peripatetic English man of letters who emigrated to the United States in January 1939.

However, the interview also makes clear his fundamental ignorance of the details of the Second World War before he began researching this book. He did not know that Britain began a strategic bombing campaign against Germany as early as 1939 which inevitably resulted in damage to civilian housing. He did not know about British preparations for chemical and biological warfare they thankfully never implemented. He doesn't even seem to be aware of the casual prejudices of pre-1939 European and American society which afflicted Jews, but in different ways many others (e.g., Catholics in the U.S. and Britain) as well.

Now, these are all things that someone who has read more deeply into the war than Baker had (before he started this book) would have known readily. But wipe that smirk off your face. Most people's knowledge of the war is pretty much just the way that Baker describes early in the interview:
I certainly felt I had an idea of World War II, and it's probably the idea that many people share: there was this insane aggressor, and there was really only one way to proceed in resisting him.

No mention there of the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, the rape of Nanking in 1938, the French offensive into Germany in 1939, the Winter War of 1939-40, the Italian declaration of war in 1940, or the coup in Yugoslavia in 1941.

Nor is there any reason for ordinary people to take an interest in these arcane sectors of world history 1936-41. Unless, of course, one wants history to do something other than just be an account of events and experiences that occurred a long time ago. And here is where I think historians ought to be a little more understanding of Baker's personal experience.

One could argue that his book is a long indictment of the British political class. Their failure to back the enforcement of the Versailles treaty conditions during the 1930s, particularly in the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 and the Rhineland crisis of 1936, were large steps on the road to war. However, as Baker's book indicates, it's always very difficult to step outside one's own world and decision-makers face the same problem. There were no British politicians like Herr Hitler (working-class, uneducated, ex-private-soldier-and-criminal), and if there had been he would have been very much under the thumb of his backroom sponsors. It would be very easy for someone to believe what they wanted - Hitler would be controlled by generals and industrialists if he went too far.

Baker is better suited to dealing with the climate of appeasement than some polemicist roused to fury at what the world could have been spared if only our leaders had backbone. Baker recognizes that doubt exists, that we always have alternatives to wrestle with. From his interviews, it is clear that Baker is trying to re-open an old debate in the United States, that he is in an American tradition that is not at all forgotten, but which is often disrespected and disregarded by the Atlanticist historiography triumphant in the British and American media. And this explains a lot of the fury that its representatives have directed toward Baker's book.

Without doubt, when history appears on the American stage, it is generally deployed for a didactic purpose. Hitler's role is to serve as a moral lesson, usually one of the importance of standing up to bullies before they get too powerful. The whole edifice of American historical culture, as experienced by the non-historian, resembles J H Plumb's concept of "the Past" - a combination of fact and myth used to justify actions in the present. For an intelligent reader like Baker, the discovery that certain facts have been occluded create the emotional conditions for an overreaction.

How much does Baker's Human Smoke represent a foolhardy pacifism, and how much a genuinely American response to a foreign crisis?

(to be continued)

29 April 2008

Prize winner

I've been meaning to mention that the J W Dafoe Foundation awarded its book prize to Tim Cook, a researcher at the Canadian War Museum, for his book At the Sharp End. It certainly seems a boom time in Canadian military history.

Nicholson Baker's World Wars

Nicholson Baker, a novelist, has written a book about the Second World War, Human Smoke. A significant clue as to the book's faults is found in this interview. Baker has produced a book largely based on his reading of newspapers. Not researching newspapers in a library, but actual copies of the papers themselves, which he acquired. Baker is also a novelist. The implications of these two facts, I think, have not been entirely grasped by the reviewers I have read so far. Such as this one and that one.

The Chicago Tribune reviewer cites a quotation where a woman screams in response to a draft lottery draw. Only at the very end of the paragraph does he suggest that he perceives the novelist's art may be at work. The woman, of course, did not necessarily have to be in the room to make the artistic point. We don't even know if it is a scream of anguish, or relief. (More hilariously, the reviewer writes - "he has written a work about the past with no narrative". Welcome to modern fashions in historical writing, pal.)

David Cesarani, writing in the second review, more successfully grapples with the fact that Baker is a novelist. "it presents only one interpretation. The reader is trapped in Baker's paranoid view of history." However, he does not succeed so well in understanding the role of Baker's sources. "Churchill is portrayed as a Hun-bashing...drink-sodden imperialist spoiling for a fight with Germany....Roosevelt...as cynical, anti-Semitic and interested mainly in promoting wars that will supply markets for arms manufacturers." Oh yes, and if I read the papers I'll find all sorts of comments suggesting George Bush is Dick Cheney's puppet or that Hilary Clinton is sexy.

Not having read the book, nor discussed the matter with Baker himself, I can only understand it by suggesting that Baker's wider argument is more subtle than the reviewer-historians have grasped. We experience an event, such as the ongoing War in Iraq, in a piecemeal form, filtered by two editors - one is located at our source of information, whether radio or newspaper in 1939, and the other is our own selection of what to pay close attention to. Baker's book shows us how one reader might have perceived the oncoming war and decided that the cost of fighting it might not have been worth it.

I'll end this part by supporting my interpretation of Baker's motives with a quotation of his own words from the article in The Times linked in my first paragraph.
There’s no doubt Churchill was a titanic figure, a brilliant man, a great writer, a genius. But it’s a mistake to let this lead us into an acceptance of things we should feel unhappy about.

(to be continued)

EDIT: I made an error in the above post. Baker did indeed use microfilmed newspapers, as well as many personal accounts of the war, although the original impetus came from actual paper newspapers, and not microfilmed ones.

28 April 2008

War in Iraq = Syria in the Lebanon

I've been working my way through the twelve points in this article about the War in Iraq.

The last three points aren't really amenable to the kind of historical approach I've limited myself to. However, when one looks at Iraq, the parallels with the 1970s conflict in the Lebanon are striking. A regime dominated by a minority has collapsed into civil war (Saddam + Sunnis = Lebanon's Christians; Shias = Lebanon's Moslems). The divisions are mainly confessional, but complicated by the presence of non-national force (the Kurds = PLO). Two external powers have strategic interests in the area (the United States + Iran = Syria + Israel). A foreign country has military forces occupying parts of the country, sponsoring a near-puppet government that perceives the occupier's interests as best-suited to preserving national integrity (the United States = Syria). Another foreign country intervenes in the conflict, directly supporting a confessional group (Iran = Israel).

There are also strong differences, most important being that Syrians regarded the partition of the Lebanon and Syria as an artificial one. There is no doubt that the United States does not regard Iraq as part of its national territory.

I have not quite taken a position in all this. Put simply, I thought the invasion of Iraq was a major blunder, said so at the time to anyone who would listen, and I haven't changed my opinion. However, now that the United States has so badly disrupted the lives of ordinary Iraqis, I hold it has a responsibility to bring a peaceful settlement to Iraq. Whether the Bush Administration is pursuing the best strategy to do so is debatable. But I'm not clear that a practical alternative has been proposed by anyone, which means I do not think an outright withdrawal is a practical alternative.


24 April 2008

War in Iraq - Dolchstoss

I'm working my way through the twelve points in this article, applying an historical perspective to the assertions made. (Click on the War in Iraq label to see the other blog entries in this series.)

Points (7) and (8) are, if the Vietnam War is any guideline, related. If the U.S. intends to replace its troops on the ground with Iraqi troops, the American military has a tradition of using air power to support its clients in combat. Using the same reference point, the 1972 offensive, we can regard problems with the Iraqi Army and police during the fighting in Basra as significant, or we can explain them away as problems of an army which has been thrown together from assorted militias (registration required) and put into combat for the first time.

The American army has never institutionally embraced a "stab-in-the-back" myth about the Vietnam War, although there are probably both officers and Republicans who think it should do so. However, with my self-confessed cynicism about power brokers and journalists, the fact that the American political leadership found itself deeply divided over the Vietnam War makes me suspect coverage that highlighted the failures of the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam, while ignoring its successes. I'm fairly confident in saying that the American Army thinks it won the war in Viet Nam during 1968-70, and that if the country had sustained its support for the south during 1973-5, the north would have been defeated just as it was in 1972.

Thus, the American military quite probably thinks it can win in Iraq with the same strategy of leaving ground combat to the Iraqis, who will get better as they practice their craft more, but supporting them with air power. And I'm not so sure America's political leadership is as divided over Iraq as it was over Viet Nam. So those arguing against the war had better seize on incidents like desertion in Basra now, before these problems are ironed out and the Iraqi army puts in a better show.

A Professional Military Historian Speaks

Rob Citino, who has featured in this blog not so long ago, has had an address he gave to a meeting of the Society for Military History published on Mark Grimsley's blog. (It includes a link to an article he wrote about the current state of literature in military history.)

Both the blog entry and the article are of interest, in part because they tell us about Citino's world view. In the article, he trots out the traditional Aristotelian three-fold distribution of his subject (Aristotle - the first Western academic). The eternal problem with the Aristotelian three-fold distribution, especially in anglosphere thinking, is that it invariably is used to hide the actual condition of a Hegelian dialectical battle between two schools that is creating a new synthesis - as, indeed, it does in this case. Citino descries a "war and society" faction, an "operational history" faction and a "cultural" faction. I'm not clear how there is a division between the War-and-Societicians and the Culturalists. One seems to lead neatly on from the other.

The article itself drives neatly from one school to the next, almost seamlessly, as it ends its discussions of War-and-Societicians with a summary of the literature revolving around the Military Revolution of the Early Modern era, where technology, as opposed to race or institutionalized atrocity, takes centre stage. Yet I find it hard to distinguish between the way Citino describes the works of Operational Historian Dennis Showalter, and how one might expect a War-and-Societician to tackle the same material. Either Citino is emphasizing the new military history virtues of Showalter's work in order to sell it to sceptical colleagues or else there isn't the kind of difference between them that Citino proposes.

Citino's trip around his third school leaves me wondering why he felt it necessary to develop a taxonomy in the first place. He ends this section discussing a book about the Imperial German Army by Isabel Hull, which relates its experience of fighting in South West Africa with its invasion of France in 1914. We then wind up with an appeal for some military (and non-military) historians to recognize the works of others that may cross the traditional boundaries between say, the history of war and the history of law. Combining these two suggests that far from there being distinctive schools, we face a situation where works of military history have become increasingly difficult to pigeonhole, even into a discipline called "military history". Or, alternatively, that the same problem of the Academy embracing thematic history, while the public supposedly wants narrative history, affected military history as profoundly as national history.

Had I been a reader for the American Historical Review, I might have suggested that Citino abandon his Aristotelian trinity, and instead embrace the notion that the texture of literature in his field now reflects the same globalization as one sees in the media and the economy. Scholars tackle the history of countries different from their homes, and even cross significant cultural boundaries, such as that between "the West" and "the Orient". And that the victory of the new military history is both complete and has advanced our understanding of how wars are fought. And isn't that advance of understanding the job of academic history?

23 April 2008

MacArthur McClellan

It seems historians can influence our decision-makers. It seems both President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur had the Civil War on their minds when they had their confrontation over whether to expand the Korean War.

Hat-tip to Dmitri at Civil War Bookshelf.

War in Iraq - the Guano Dimension

I expect this to be a busy posting day, as there's loads of stuff that has caught my eye.

Yesterday, I started looking at the list of reasons in this article for withdrawing from Iraq. I'm more interested in providing an historical perspective on its statements than in engaging with its polemical points. I got up to point (2) before I decided the entry was long enough for a blog.

Point (3) raises the spectre of the Coalition Provisional Authority's Order 17, which grants extraterritorial rights of freedom from Iraqi jurisdiction to the U.S. military and associated enterprises. Of course, this is a truly colonial arrangement. However, it hasn't just been little non-white countries which have been subject to American attempts to assert extraterritorial rights. I can't see how, in the context of the Iraqi security situation, any military force could operate without some insulation from due legal processes. Furthermore, it gives Iraqi legislators some leverage over the situation. They could try to rescind the order, and if they succeeded it would certainly present both the United States and the U.N. with a knotty problem.

Point (4) brings up the "War for Oil" meme. Yes, that was an element of U.S. policy concerns. Why shouldn't it be?

Point (5) is utterly meaningless.

Point (6) is possibly the best case against a continued American presence, or any presence in the first place. Without doubt, Iraq is an artificial state, like others in the world. However, having opened a Pandora's Box, it is America's responsibility to resolve the problem. One way is to try to win the current war. There are others.

I offer my Roman solution tongue-in-cheek, but it doesn't invalidate my main point. Whatever is to be done to solve the Iraq problem, the lead must be given by the United States, which started this war. American voters cannot, in all responsibility, simply vote to leave and wash their hands of it all. If you didn't want to clean up the mess, you shouldn't have made it in the first place.

(to be continued)

22 April 2008

The War in Iraq - Permanent Bases or Enduring Camps?

The United States show little sign of being a country at war. (Not so Britain, which has turned into a national version of The Village in the cult TV show The Prisoner.) Security arrangements at the airports are by now familiarly strict, but travel on the bus or subway seems relaxed. (New York City bus drivers are extremely helpful, I should say. Bus is an altogether more comfortable experience than the notorious subway.) A drive upstate revealed a flag at half-mast (which may have had nothing to do with the war) and several cars displaying anti-war bumper stickers. And that's about it.

The war, however, does feature prominently on news programming, as my Internet listening often reveals. Without doubt, the American voter is going to face a clear-cut choice between a candidate who will set a timetable for withdrawal and one who will continue the war until some future point.

The country has been at war in Iraq for five years (longer than either World War or the Korean War), and in Afghanistan for six and a half. There is no sign, either, that the conflict is nearing some kind of resolution. Since the war is news, not history, I don't care to write about it. However, we can look back five years and draw some notes of historical interest.

I was stimulated to write about the war by an article from an anti-war perspective, that attempted to list twelve reasons for getting out of Iraq. Rather than focus on the rhetoric, I'd prefer to look at the assertions the articles make, in particular those that relate to strategic decisions taken five years ago that have implications for the present.

Point number (1) reminds us that the Coalition commanders were concerned about the potential for Baghdad to become "Stalingrad-Mesopotamia". The author further claims that this is what has happened, in slow motion, as Iraqi government forces struggle with militia for control of neighbourhoods. I think, though, that from a strategic point of view the Occupation authorities have got to believe that they are now dealing with "Stalingrad-Mesopotamia" with more advantages than they envisioned in early 2003. They control the government which gives them well-armed supporters and solid control of key sectors of the city. If this option had been offered in 2003, I feel fairly confident in asserting that U.S. commanders would have faced the task with more equanimity.

Point (2) is more interesting and telling. Did the U.S. ever have an "exit strategy"? The article claims that the Pentagon already had plans for constructing large bases, to support a permanent U.S. presence in Iraq, even before the invasion began. It certainly is the case that the supplemental funding request issued on March 25, 2003, five days after the war began, featured $200 million for construction projects, including $85 million for Air Force base construction, as well as the authority for the Secretary of Defense to transfer any of $60 billion allocated to fight the war to construction projects. (A pdf of the request is available from here.)

Subsequently, in September, the White House's funding for the next financial year offered a more opaque appeal for construction. There's nearly $120 million for the army, at least $18 million for the air force, and up to $500 million from a contingency account. The funding for the specified projects was to be available until the end of Fiscal Year 2008 (i.e., next September). (A pdf of this request is available from here.)

Finally, just over five years ago to the day, the New York Times published an article (registration required) forecasting maintaining four bases for U.S. forces in Iraq for an unspecified period. The article is cautious, and states that "These goals do not contradict the administration's official policy of rapid withdrawal from Iraq, [sources] say." However, it's difficult to see how, in the context of the financing requested a month earlier, one could not cynically take the view that by announcing both a rapid withdrawal and an enduring presence, the Bush Administration could serve its goals whatever it chose to do later in 2003.

Thus, I think point (2) is essentially true. Bush and his associates had no "exit strategy" because they did not plan on an exit. Like any good leader, they kept their options open. However, it is clear that the American people were given the information about a long-standing commitment in Iraq. If you supported the war in 2003, you had to embrace the administration's willingness to stay there for decades. There was no middle position available.

(To be continued.)

21 April 2008

Bomber Boys

I'm back from 10 days in the United States, plus a few more days of school holidays that made working from home rather difficult. Reading the Guardian newspaper's book review section over the weekend, I noted that Patrick Bishop's book was riding high in the paperback non-fiction best sellers. I've not read the book, so I can't comment directly.

Britain's bombing of Germany during the Second World War remains a controversial topic, yet one that has had enduring interest to British book buyers in particular. I have strong views about it, which I should put on the Web at some point. I have a sample chapter I wrote for a book I wanted someone to publish about Britain's solitary defence of civilization during 1940-1. The subject I opted for was the Strategic Bombing Offensive against Germany, as it was a self-contained topic unlike say, the Western Desert campaign. (From which I would have had to draw in the Mediterranean naval war and the invasions of Syria and Iraq.) It would be an easy matter to post that for everyone to read. However, it's fair to say that my outlook has changed somewhat since 1987, when I was researching the material in the Public Records Office at Kew.

However, I'm not sure that what I wrote twenty-one years ago would suit the mood of military history readers in 2008. Today people want to read highly personal accounts of what it was like to experience war, and not managerial issues of how to deploy resources in order both to ensure national survival and to establish effective platforms for a counterattack.

Bishop, I suspect, has established himself as the kind of franchise author I have previously characterized as the sort who finds his way on to British bestseller lists. He's a journalist by trade, just like Max Hastings, another franchise author.

05 April 2008

Military History Worries (Again)

U.S News & World Report, the American newsweekly, has an article about whether military history is in decline on American campuses. Ostensibly, the statistics show that this is indeed the case. However, life is always more complicated than bare statistics, and the article acknowledges this, so it's worth reading.

I was touched by the quote at the end of the article, from Robert Citino, professor at Eastern Michigan University:
Someone's going to be writing books about war—there's a huge demand for it. I personally would rather it be written by a scholar, instead of a re-enactor or your friendly neighborhood war buff.

Since when did they become mutually exclusive?

04 April 2008

Time for America to Intervene in Britain

Somewhere, in one of the boxes containing my books packed away for the impending move, I have a reprinted U.S. Army manual that describes 1960s thinking about psychological warfare. The army has now issued a document about its strategy in the Internet age, which you can get on pdf from a link published here. (This is really old news. I have questions about why the site publishing this article has only just got round to telling us about it.)

There's nothing new in this. My old manual implies adopting the same sort of strategy in the pre-Internet age. Two guys (at least) got paid to produce this report. Hey, Pentagon, I could write you some good stuff about the significance of drinking water for crews of ships involved in littoral warfare. Or you could subsidize me to write about your enemies in British publishing. Get in touch.

28 March 2008

The War Watching Room

RealMilitaryFlix.com is a place to go to watch real films of soldiers in training or during operations. Beware, though, if you're at work. The video starts up automatically.

27 March 2008

Ambitious Project

The Gallipoli campaign threw together men from Germany, France, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Turkey, among others, which suggests that tourists from them all might find a trip to the Dardanelles of interest. The growth of tourism in Turkey (which during my brief phase of employment in the tourism industry in 1982-4 amounted to 'small potatoes') means that people are more likely to want to make the trip there.

The Turks have ambitious plans to create an interactive museum on the site of their Çannakkale Martyrs' Monument. Having made a trip to damp Belgium in October, the prospect of spring in the Mediterranenan seems more promising for a family holiday.

26 March 2008

1918 90

A visitor to this blog, Charles, draws my attention to this article that appeared in The Times, written by Field Marshal Lord Bramall, even before I wrote my entry on Gough.

The article can be placed in the "John Terraine School" of Western Front history, which is kind of what I grew up with. Terraine challenged the predominant view of Haig from when I was a boy which is basically that the British commander, and most of his colleagues, verged on being stupid, if they weren't actually idiots.

Journalist John Terraine made himself into an historian (a suitable role model for me!), largely on the strength of his interest in the First World War. His biography of Haig came out in 1963, some years after the memoirs of people who actually knew the Scottish field marshal (eg, politicians Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George) put the boot into the victorious commander. The battle to rescue Haig's reputation raged throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but I think the Terraine School could more or less proclaim a tactical victory by the middle of the latter decade. (We then moved on to Montgomery.)

For me, I don't have a dog in this fight at the moment. I could argue that Haig was too slow to learn from his mistakes. I could argue that Haig did as well as anyone could have done at The Somme in 1916 and during the German offensives toward Amiens and in Flanders in 1918. However, the case of Passchendaele weighs heavily on those who wish to rehabilitate the man. This mismanaged offensive may be a model of military incompetence, but at least gave Canada's Arthur Currie a chance to show he knew his business.

Mapping and the Web

A map, used in conjunction with a lecture, to describe the events of the American Civil War battle of Gettysburg, has become the subject of a minor controversy.

My father and I made at least two visits to the battlefield, so there's a good possibility I've seen it. Even if I haven't, I can well imagine what it's like. The map will show the terrain contours and key buildings, and small electric lights come on and off at various points during a short lecture. There used to be something similar showing Jackson's Shenandoah Valley Campaign in 1862 during the same conflict at a museum in the Shenandoah valley. These sorts of things were staples of growing up in a military-history-loving American household in the 1960s and 1970s.

That said, I'm not sure it's worth preserving. It would be far more effective, as the comment about the boy downloading a game off the Internet makes clear, to use some computer game engine and accompanying maps, stuck on the Internet, for people to view. Or at least one could have an audio-visual installation showing them in the visitor's centre. The case for preservation rests entirely on whether these kind of 'electric maps' represent a significant cultural stage. In which case it belongs in a museum of museum technology, and not as part of a battlefield monument. In an age when the dates of Gettysburg might be unknown to more than half of secondary school students, information must be provided in a way that will grab their attention, and not that of their grandparents.

17 March 2008

Gough in command

Hmm, a month away. I've been involved in selling a house, which has meant going through my books, finding some to discard. While looking at some of them, I came across an account of General Sir Hubert Gough's activities on the first day of the German Operation Michael, March 21, 1918. It appeared in Martin Middlebrook's The Kaiser's Battle, published in 1978 by Allen Lane. Since we are so close to a round-number anniversary (the 90th), it seems worth looking at it.

I'll quote the key points.
At his headquarters at Nesle, fifteen miles behind the front, Gough had been woken by the distant roar of the German bombardment [which began at 0440]and he realised that 'it was so sustained and steady that it at once gave me the impression of some crushing, smashing power'....Gough went back to sleep for an hour, then got up, had breakfast and prepared to handle the greatest battle of his career. He had brought all of his own reserves well forward before the battle...To Gough's relief, GHQ immediately released [two nearby reserve divisions] for use.

When Gough had rung GHQ to ask for these two reserve divisions, he had spoken not to Haig, who was being briefed by Lawrence, but to Major-General J. H. Davidson, head of the Operations Section. Gough pointed out that even with the two reserve divisions would still be extremely vulnerable and he asked when he might receive further reinforcements...

Gough fretted at his headquarters for the rest of the morning. He nearly set out for a tour of his four corps headquarters but it was too early for this so he stayed put, working with his staff to scrape up makeshift fighting units from reinforcement camps and administrative units of the Fifth Army. Reports came in from corps commanders telling of heavy fighting in the Forward Zone....

Air reconnaissance during the early afternoon had confirmed that the roads and tracs behind the German lines were full of reserve divisions marching towards the battle. This information told Gough that the battle which had started that morning would be a prolonged one....

General Humbert, commander of the French Third Army, had arrived just before lunch to discuss the help that could be given by French units....

After lunch, Gough left Nesle by motor car to pay quick calls on his four corps commanders....Gough met [Lieutenant-General Sir Richard] Butler at a hastily-arranged rendezvous in the village of Beaumong-en-Beine to save driving the full distance to Butler's headquarters....

Leaving Butler, Gough continued his tour and met the remaining corps commanders....By the time he retured to his own headquarters, late in the afternoon, Gough had decided on his policy....it was more important to keep together what was left of his battered divisions in the south than to hold ground....Gough's staff sent out the orders...This was the last move that Gough was called upon to make in theis first day of the battle. After dinner that night, he spoke again to GHQ about the prospects for the next days' fighting. Again it was Lawrence, the Chief of Staff, to whom Gough spoke.

The contrast with what we read of General Joseph E Johnston's Bull Run experience is quite marked, highlighting the effect of industrialized warfare's much larger armies. Where Johnston personally engaged with officers who were ordered to the 'front line', and appears to have issued orders himself, Gough's job is much more managerial, much less directly involved in a combat. He is mainly a collector and transmitter of information.

A. He discusses the situation at the start and end of the day with GHQ, apparently to describe the resources he needs and the overall situation and to get approval for his intended course of action.

B. He collects and analyses information from his neighbour (the French general Humbert), and from his subordinates, as well as receiving reports passed up the chain of command by the aerial units. However, he does not intervene directly (at least from the information in Middlebrook's book) with commanders below the corps level.

C. He works with his staff to redistribute forces available in his rear areas to support combat operations.

D. He decides on an overall policy, but does not engage in more detailed prescription of what needs to be done.

A lot of my analysis is dependent on Middlebrook not omitting anything, but Gough does not appear to engage in any micromanagement during this crisis. It's also of interest that his corps commanders are based close enough to the army headquarters for all four of their headquarters to be within a motor car journey between the end of lunch and later afternoon. Presumably Gough had the right of way over other road traffic.

18 February 2008

Book promotion through resignation

Lieutenant-Colonel John Nagl, who wrote the U.S. Army's combat manual on counterinsurgency operations, appeared last week on All Things Considered, having become newsworthy through deciding to leave the Army.

Nagl is the sort of guy whose books are embraced enthusiastically by any publisher. Last week's appearance wasn't the first on NPR this year. He appeared on Fresh Air last month. He's also been on the Daily Show. He possibly came to public prominence in 2004, in a New York Times' article.

His magnum opus (so far), published in 2005 by the University of Chicago Press, is Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. This examination of two cases in counterinsurgency warfare, the British army in Malaya during the 1950s and the American army in Vietnam during the 1960s, reflects its origins as a University of Oxford PhD thesis in both its choice of subject and its conclusion. You can find a review of it, which is perceptive in places, here.

There's a tendency on the part of organizations to study success and contrast it with failure. In my contrarian way, I'm inclined to the view that failure is more instructive. Nagl's Soup reflects an Anglophilia that the review punctures, especially by bringing up the case of Palestine, which is a much more important experience for the American army in Iraq today to consider. The British had the awkward problem of dealing with two communities who both wanted to control their destiny on the same land. That's a problem the American army has to contend with in Iraq, only they have the Kurds to contend with as well. And why did the British fail in Palestine? Well, there's something to put on my to-do list.

11 February 2008

What General Johnston Did

Some years ago I got a few people together to write some notes about what generals in ancient and medieval battles did. Partly it was inspired by John Keegan's book The Mask of Command. However, I was more interested in my own agenda, which was to figure out how a general spent his (or her, in those days) time during a battle. Of course, writing about the ancients means entering a difficult world for the historian, where resources are limited to the point of a starvation diet.

In one of those Internetly sort of ways, I came across General Joseph E Johnston's account of the campaign of Bull Run (or Manassas, as he might have called it) in the summer of 1861. It was mentioned in one of my favourite blogs, which served as a sort of inspiration for this, Civil War Book News, in connection with how military use of railroads was managed during the American Civil War. But, as I read it, I remembered my ancient generals' symposium, and decided to treat this text in the same way to see what Johnston actually did in getting his army into battle.

You'll note the first thing he did was to study the ground. Terrain (and weather) probably are far larger role in warfare than armchair generals perhaps appreciate. Yet, what confirms him in his decision of where to establish his base is a third factor, communications. Winchester enables him to support General PGT Beauregard's forces to the east, and presumably vice versa.

In the unique nature of American Civil War armies, Johnston's next job is to shape his army, an amateur force that is badly trained and equipped. George Washington will have known how he felt.

As Johnston's position comes under threat, his next job is to decide where he will best be situated to meet the enemy, and then to acquire as much information as he can about what the enemy is doing.

When he moves to support Beauregard, his first act as soon as he gets there is to pass active management of the fighting to Beauregard, because he is not acquainted with the troops' deployment and the local terrain. We're back to the significance of terrain again.

As the fighting begins, Johnston is in a central position with Beauregard, along the length of the Confederate deployment area. As it becomes clear that the Union forces have beaten the Rebels to the punch, Beauregard moves to the crisis point, while Johnston co-ordinates the movement of troops towards it. However, at this point it becomes unclear whether Beauregard or Johnston is directing the overall Rebel effort.

However, a quick look at Beauregard's own account, reveals that Johnston did indeed play a key role in directing the reinforcements to the appropriate place, at least that's what Beauregard himself admitted:

By this time, between half past two and 3 o'clock p.m., our re-enforcements pushed forward, and, directed by General Johnston to the required quarter...

Thus, once battle is joined the general's main task is both to anticipate where the enemy will strike and to anticipate where his forces can do the most good. No matter how good he has been in all the other analytical and managerial tasks outline in Johnston's official report, the test by which readers will judge him comes in this ability to second guess his opponent.

07 February 2008

George Washington's Casualties Part 3

Well, we've looked at the casualty rates of George Washington's battles, and those of the armies that faced him. Now, let's look at his greatest rival across the battlefield, General Sir William Howe.

First, I'll do the battles, then some off-the-cuff analysis.

Bunker Hill (1775) 36 percent
Long Island (1776) 2 percent
Harlem Heights (1776) 8 percent
White Plains (1776) 2 percent
Fort Washington (1776) 6 percent
Brandywine (1777) 6 percent
Germantown (1777) 4 percent
Total for 7 battles 5 percent

Compared with Washington's "butcher's bill", Howe is profligate indeed. However, he deserves some special consideration. In all but one of these engagements, Howe is the attacker, a role that often results in much heavier losses in the modern era. Furthermore, he gets a big boost from his severe casualties at Bunker Hill, when he commanded his smallest force in any battle. But even if you take that away from him, he still causes 4 percent casualties in 6 battles. According to the conventional wisdom, he avoided head-on confrontations after the terrible losses at Bunker Hill, relying on maneuver in turning movements such as at Long Island and Brandywine. Nonetheless, Washington is still better at keeping his men from harm.

06 February 2008

The American Way of Army Doctrine

Historian Brian McAllister Linn was on Book TV last weekend talking about how the United States Army has analysed the way it approaches its mission. He gave a talk describing the three schools of thought he identified in the army, focusing on the period between 1952 and 1962, when the army was coming to grips with its apparent marginalization in a world of Mutually-Assured Destruction. It's interesting, but I think the most important point is made right at the end, when he talks about how the present uses the past. It undescores my general view that history, especially in the United States, is politics by another means.

04 February 2008

Double Feature - Washington Part 2 and the Charge of the Light Brigade

Having established some data about Washington's casualty rates in battle, one now needs to put some perspective on those figures by looking at his contemporaries. Let's start with his opponents in his battles.

Long Island (1776) 2 percent
Harlem Heights (1776) 1 percent
Trenton (1776) 8 percent
Princeton (1777) 2 percent
Brandywine (1777) 6 percent
Germantown (1777) 4 percent
Monmouth (1778) 2 percent
Yorktown (1781) 5 percent
Total for 8 battles 3 percent

The total for eight battles is about the same. To be more precise, one could show that Washington is at 3.3 percent, while his opponents are 3.1 percent. Of course, there are all sorts of factors to take into account in analysing these figures, but let's continue to play around with data before we start drawing conclusion.


The BBC's Radio 4 has a show called "In Our Time" that is fascinating if you have only a little knowledge about the topic. I missed that a few months ago they covered the Charge of the Light Brigade. I'm not sure if the link works for North American visitors to the blog, but if you have a sketchy knowledge of the Crimean War and want to know more in an easily digestible form, point your browsers here.

29 January 2008

George Washington's Casualties 1

Many baseball fans, largely thanks to the impact of Fantasy Baseball, have picked up the banner of sabermetrics, originally unfurled by Bill James back in the 1970s. For those of you who don't follow such dismal sciences, sabermetrics has been defined by Bill James as "the search for objective truth about baseball".

In its original form, sabermetrics was used to answer questions that occurred to James. How many times does an event happen while this player is at that position? Is this a lot, or is he good at preventing that event? It did help us get a better understanding of players' value to their teams. In writing my book on the Revolutionary War, I wondered after doing research about the Battle of Germantown (October 4, 1777) whether Washington was a particularly profligate commander - were the numbers of killed and wounded unusually high for his army in his era?

The problem here is what statistics to use? In the end, for the purpose of uniformity, I chose to use data from www.myrevolutionarywar.com. I limited my data set to the killed and wounded as a percentage of the total strength. At this stage, I'm not after the perfect answer, I just want a value that I can use elsewhere.

Washington can be credited with commanding eight major battles. Three of them aren't all that major, but they are famous and an important part of his military reputation. A fourth battle was a joint operation, and I'm not sure how much credit Washington deserves for his French ally's losses. Anyway, here's the data - each battle and the percentage of Washington's troops that were killed and wounded.

Long Island (1776) 5 percent
Harlem Heights (1776) 6.5 percent
Trenton (1776) >1 percent
Princeton (1777) 7.5 percent
Brandywine (1777) 11.5 percent
Germantown (1777) 6.1 percent
Monmouth C.H. (1778) 2.7 percent
Yorktown (1781) 1.2 percent
Total for 8 battles 3.3 percent

If we look at the median, we can see that Washington's hovers in the 5-6.1 percent range, while his average is somewhat lower. Now we have some data, let's see what other information we can learn.

28 January 2008

Museum for Lazio's #1 Fan

Ten days without a post, as I wrote my book for young readers on the American Revolution. However, I got some ideas for a series of posts, so perhaps it was worth it.

Meanwhile, a scan of recent news revealed that Benito Mussolini's Italian Social Republic is to get its own museum. The Daily Telegraph of London based a short piece on press agency bulletins. Through the magic of Google translation, you can read what Milan's Corriere della Sera kind of wrote about it.

It's not so much a museum as something more like the Freedom Trail in Boston, with the scattered sites marked by plaques for visitors to read. Of course, this is potentially a very controversial project in Italy, where the period between the fall of Mussolini's regime in 1943 and the end of the war was marked by a fierce civil war that has left a lasting legacy of bitterness and, one might say, soccer hooliganism. The Corriere article goes to some lengths to point out that it was begun under a left-wing provincial executive. Roberto Chiarini, a professor of contemporary history at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Milan, and president of the Centro studi e documentazione sul periodico storico della RSI, is at pains to emphasize the scholarly nature of his efforts, citing his own book on Living in the Italian Social Republic, published last year. I'm not sure of my Italian here, but it looks like the library of the Center is based on 3,000 volumes donated by an organization of veterans who fought for Mussolini's republic.

As for Chiarini, he is described by Giampaolo Pansa, a journalist of decidedly right-wing views, as a man of the left. Regardless of who else might be involved in the project, at least the president appears a scholar.

I find Mussolini a fascinating figure, mainly because he could easily have made a few different decisions at key moments during his career and completely changed the history of Italy both during the war and in its postwar years. When Dennis Mack Smith's once-standard English-language biography of the Fascist dictator came out in the early 1980s, a review I remember (and used to have clipped out and stuck in one of my books) suggested that if he could have kept out of the war until it was clear the Allies would win, he might have gone on to become one of the honored founders of NATO, or at least have achieved some kind of accommodation with the West in the Cold War like Franco did. Instead, he wound up with his body hanging by its heels in Milan. Oh, and he's generally accepted to have been a fan of the Lazio soccer club in Rome, although actually the evidence for this is not altogether definitive.