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.