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)