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.

18 January 2008

Historians' dreams?

While working on my book, I came across this passage in Piers Mackesy's The War for America: 1775-1783. Mackesy's book takes a decidedly British point of view, and I can't help but hear a note of anguish at the lost opportunity in the aftermath of the Battle of Brandywine, in September 1777.

A cavalry force properly proportioned to Howe's army and fit for duty might have prevented the enemy from rallying. Two or three regiments of boldly led dragoons sabreing the stragglers and penetrating the flanks of the retreating column might have spread such confusion as to give a different turn to the campaign.
[emphasis added]

09 January 2008

Military History Carnival X

The Tenth Military History Carnival went up at Walking the Berkshires earlier this week. (I missed the Ninth.) There's a theme to this one, as George MacDonald Fraser's death was announced during its preparation, so military historical fiction takes center stage. What caught my eye this time? A note about submersibles in the American Revolution, a military geography of the American Civil War, and one of my fellow Michiganders doing another one a good turn in fraught circumstances. I also was interested in a comment about whether the Arctic Convoys in the Second World War were worth the effort.

Most surprisingly, though, I found my own blog featured in the carnival, thanks to a nomination by Brett Holman at Airminded. Airminded's featured on my blogroll virtually since I started, and covers some similar ground to my first foray into a book proposal, which sadly went nowhere - strategic bombing. Thanks, Brett!

08 January 2008

Taps in Iraq: the Follow-Up

To my delighted surprise, NPR ran an item on Morning Edition today about the effects of the Surge, and the debate in the armed forces over what is happening. If you've listened to Biddle's lecture, it's worth following it up with this. (Alternatively, listen to Biddle after hearing this to get more background.)

The item mentioned a consequence of the US policy that I haven't mentioned, although I think it's possibly overstated here. The effect of paying these gangs is to create a parallel force, the consequences of which are difficult to forecast. One of the few comparable situations I can recall is England after the Hundred Years' War. The result? A civil war.

07 January 2008

Taps in Iraq

If you are at all interested in the U.S. war in Iraq during the last two or three years, and have an hour and a half to spare, go right now to view Stephen Biddle's lecture at the University of California Berkeley in November of last year. You will need to scroll down the list on the page I've linked to, in order to find Biddle's entry. (I clicked on the left-most of the three icons, but you might find one of the others suits your needs better.)

I found the lecture interesting for two reasons. One is that it outlines part of what astute readers had already identified as the "official" American history of the war. I refer not to some wild conspiracy theory that hides the truth, but rather an attempt by American institutions themselves to describe what happened as they saw it, just as we have official histories of the Second World War. These works always carry great prestige, but in their nature are prey to the "Whig Interpretation of History". (I see I am not the first to identify Bush administration analysis in Iraq with Butterfield's critique.)

Biddle cites three turning points as having contributed to the reduction in American discomfort about Iraq as of Fall 2007. The first he cites is what he calls "the battle of Baghdad" in February 2006. This was less of a battle than the kind of systematic murder by death squads that all too often arises where American military force intervenes directly (see El Salvador, Colombia and dirty wars in Chile and Argentina). Biddle's argument is that the Sunni death squads suffered a major defeat there, from which all else develops. I'm not directly challenging Biddle's analysis. He knows far more than I do about Iraq. However, from an Iraqi point of view things may look different. They may see the Battle of Baghdad as an intermediate stage, because their decision-making cycle may not be so dependent on the electoral metronome that beats time for American decision-makers.

More worryingly for the future, Biddle talks about the way Sunni and Shia death squads have been bribed to stop fighting. He doesn't actually describe it in such bold language, but basically that's what happening. Gang leaders sign deals in which they agree to stop fighting in return for $300 a month for each gangster on their rosters. Basically, a substantial number of bilateral cease-fires is gradually spreading an armed peace across Iraq.

A sadly overlooked film (at least to my knowledge) that is useful here is Taps. Taps as a document predicting the cultural tensions of America under Reagan both at home and abroad was prescient. President Bush II has inherited these tensions to some extent in his own political coalition. Toward the end of the film, the cadet major is urged to "declare a victory". The $300-man policy in Iraq offers a foundation for just such a declared victory. The stipend buys a reduction in violence. At this point, a subsequent administration can choose whether to continue the Bush policy of stationing troops in Iraq in the way we did in Germany and Korea during the Cold War; or to leave after negotiating some kind of exit deal with Iraqi leaders that continues the death squads' subsidy for an indeterminate time.

The problem with hurrying to declare a victory is that it might not happen soon enough. It won't be long before leaders on both sides will find younger fellows putting them under pressure to act more radically. That's what young, ambitious people do - demand more, looking for signs of weakness. At some point, sooner or later, a U.S. administration is going to have to confront what it is trying to avoid at the moment - a government in Baghdad that is not sympathetic to American interests in the Middle East. A nationalist leader with a real democratic mandate would be America's biggest nightmare in Iraq. (See Chavez, Hugo.) What then? It wouldn't be the first time for a Western state to leave a Middle Eastern protectorate of strategic value after a controversial war, only to see it fall into the hands of the men they were fighting, who subsequently attempt to export their revolution to a neighbor, thus causing a new war involving the Western state.

Biddle talks about us needing a moratorium on Vietnam analogies. I've got a better one for him. Aden.

05 January 2008

Digital Self -Publishing Success

It's very hard for digitally published books to be especially successful. Digital publishing offers an avenue for books that have problems with traditional publishers. These are, probably in order of importance -

1) Name recognition - Publishers have trouble marketing someone who has nothing to commend them, either in past experience (ex-soldier/sailor/airman in the case of books about war), or present position (academics).

2) Subject matter - You can tackle name recognition if your subject is sufficiently broad to have wide appeal, especially into foreign markets. Foreign sales almost equal free money for publishers, although this may change in the next ten years, if it hasn't already.

3) Length - Writers often neglect the fact that traditional publishers think in certain sizes. This is partly a pricing issue, as the cost of publishing a book goes down as it gets bigger (until it gets too big), which feeds into the idea of price points, where potential purchasers might be put off buying because the book seems expensive for its size.

This book on the experience of Canadian soldiers during the 1941 battle of Hong Kong has achieved some critical praise, but really falls foul of all three of my rules above. Digital self-publishing was really its only route to getting into print.

At that point, though, the marketing of the book takes over. This is the hardest hurdle to leap of all, which is why it's probably better to exhaust all avenues of small publishers before going the digital route. A small publisher will at least have some ability to claim review space, where self-publishing has none.

Basically, unless you can build up a network of promotion via blogs and pushing your product on online forums, you've got little chance of sales outside of your immediate market of friends and family.

03 January 2008

Spain and the American Revolution

I've set up a couple of Google Alerts as part of writing my book on the American Revolution. Via this, I was informed that there is an art exhibit in Washington, DC, on the theme of Spanish support for the American Revolution. This is one of those episodes of a Latin American military history that needs to be made more prominent.

Spain's participation in the war focused on retrieving the Gulf Coast, which had fallen into British hands after the end of the Seven Years' War. The British divided the colony into two, and established the capital of West Florida, which included the Florida panhandle and stretched west along the cost to the Mississippi river, at Pensacola.

The Spanish governor of Louisiana (which had been transferred by France to Spain in 1762, although no-one knew until 1764), Bernardo de Gálvez y Gallado, pursued an aggressive campaign against British West Florida following the Spanish declaration of war against Britain in 1779. A summary article outlining Gálvez' actions is found at the Patriot Resource.

The most significant action occurred in 1781, with the siege and battle of Pensacola. This has apparently been described as one of the most written-about battles in history, and extensive excerpts from Gálvez' own combat diary are included at the Florida Historical Quarterly. The Spanish won; and the peace agreements of 1783 that ended the war gave them back both of the Floridas. Of course, the actual northern boundary of the Floridas was not carefully delineated in all the agreements, and the resultant dispute returned relations between Catholic Spain and Protestant Anglo-America back to their frigid normal state.

If you haven't got time to read so much as I offer in my links, you could do worse than read the summary of events at Little Town Mart.

02 January 2008

A Voyage into Amazonia

During the autumn, the Christmas present season, I started to keep an eye on the best-sellers in military history on various Amazon sites - the American, British, French and Canadian ones. It proved an interesting exercise, if only because it highlighted how different the markets are.

The British list offered the greatest insight, if only because it captured what might be called the fundamental problem, from a publishing point of view, of the British book buying public.The top titles were dominated by what one might call "franchise authors". These are people whose names are very well known already - Max Hastings, Antony Beevor, Max Arthur - and who can be easily marketed. (Broadcast media producers are more likely to be interested in a Falklands journalist and former Evening Standard editor than some retired fellow making a second career to supplement a pension by hacking away at illustrated book publishing.) British history book buyers resemble the mass-market fiction purchaser, always after this year's book by a favored author. They have some justification for this. Hastings and Beevor are compelling storytellers. But authors and publishers would perhaps wish they were a little more adventurous.

The French list need not detain us long, because there isn't actually much about war on it. At least, not in the sense of histories of battles and campaigns. The French list focuses on theory (Sun-Tzu appears twice), rather than practice. Books with American themes (eg, the Pentagon on climate change) prop up the lower reaches of the top 25.

The American list was dominated for a long time by Marcus Luttrell's account of an Afghan battle. It was eventually supplanted by the book of the film (or was it the other way round?) on Charlie Wilson's war. The key thing to my mind, though, was how the list featured contemporary conflicts rather than historical ones. I expected to see more Civil War books pushing aside a title such as Rajiv Chandrasekaran's. I also expected to see more of a "franchise author" effect. In fact, it was almost absent. American readers are a little more adventurous (or fickle, to an author), it seems. They aren't greatly interested in anything that doesn't involve Americans, though.

Finally, a survey of the Canadian list left me with the impression that Canadians are the most militaristic of the four Amazon countries. The list is almost entirely concerned with fighting wars, whether at the sharp end or supplying the men at the front. Canadian readers are as intensely nationalistic as the Americans, but more historically minded. Theory is of least interest, without a single theoretical title. (Even the Americans were buying Sun-Tzu.)

I see lessons here for anyone trying to organize a publishing programme. Most importantly, one needs a broad range of titles each season to capture the interest of different sectors of the military history reading public, as well as to maximize one's international prospects. But, sadly for me, the general rule of thumb is to avoid real history - unless your name is Max Beevor.