Quotulatiousness

July 29, 2017

QotD: Imposing “democracy”

Filed under: Government, History, Middle East, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

To be fair, the British set up monarchies, in the hope that they would become constitutional monarchies (which were their experience of something that might actually get somewhere). Jordan seems to be succeeding; the Gulf states are so successful few want to change; and Egypt was derailed by the Soviets and Americans playing Cold War games. The French tried to set up republics (god knows why, their’s [had] never worked) in Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, and other places. In the words of Dr Phil, ‘How’s that working out for you?’. The Americans successfully undermined the Egyptian and Iranian attempts to get constitutional monarchies off the ground, and celebrated the resulting republics… very briefly. The second in particular no longer looks a very clever move.

The latest American attempts to force republics on Afghanistan and Iraq have been absolute disasters.

Afghanistan might, might… have worked if the Americans had understood that such a tribalised society required a House of Lords of all the powerful tribal leaders and major clerics, to balance [the] elected representatives. (But of course it would still need some sort of monarch to make it work, because, as Machiavelli pointed out, you need 3 powers in balance, so any two can stop the third from dominating!).) Or they could just have a system where the two major components completely ignore each other while they compete for control, and leave an easy opening for the return of the Taliban.

Iraq might, might… have worked with a federal system of at least a dozen ethnically based states that each had two representatives to a senate that had the right to block the excesses of an elected house where a 50% majority could get revenge on everyone else for every slight since the death of the prophet. Or they could go for a more simplistic version of a republic, and get what they inevitably got.

Why couldn’t the Americans have kept their big fat ideologies out of it, as they largely did after the first Gulf War. Kuwait is no great shining beacon, but it doesn’t suffer from the American idealism that lead to Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and Iran!

Nigel Davies, “The ‘Arab Spring’, 1848, and the 30 Years War/s…”, rethinking history, 2015-09-19.

May 27, 2017

Canada’s hollow army

Filed under: Cancon, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Thanks to a post at Army.ca, here is the rough outline of the NATO battle group that Canada will be leading in Latvia later this summer (oddly lacking in attached artillery support):

… the Canadian-led battalion level battle group will be composed of about 1,138 soldiers, as well as armor, armored transport and combat support. Of that number, 450 will be Canadian mechanized infantry bringing with them armored vehicles and various support elements. A specialized Canadian reconnaissance platoon will also be on the ground. Albania will send 18 combat (explosive ordnance disposal) engineers. Italy will send a mechanized infantry company consisting of 160 soldiers plus armored fighting vehicles. Poland will send a tank company with 160 troops. Slovenia will send 50 soldiers specializing in defense against weapons of mass destruction, (chemical, biological and nuclear weapon defense, decontamination operations etc). Spain will send the second-largest contingent: 300 soldiers from a mechanized infantry company and armored vehicles, combat engineers and support elements.

As Ted Campbell points out, this is an odd and unwieldy formation and seems unnecessarily multi-national for such a small tasking. Why isn’t the Canadian Army just sending a full battalion with the necessary supporting troops (artillery, armour, engineers, medical and logistics, etc.) to minimize operational and linguistic friction? It’s because we don’t have enough troops to do that successfully:

There is an old, tried and true, military expression to describe this: “it’s a dog’s bloody breakfast!” Can you imagine trying to command and control that organization? Especially under NATO’s rules that, as we saw in Afghanistan, allow each country to impose caveats on what where when and how its forces may be told asked to do anything at all.

So how did we, Canada, get to this? How is it that we cannot, it appears, deploy a complete battle group without Albanian, Italian, Polish, Solvenian and Spanish troops? After all, we had a full battle group in Afghanistan just five years ago, didn’t we?

Well, yes, but …

First, a “battle group” is rarely a formed unit (never in the Canadian Army). It is, usually, either a full up armoured (tank) regiment or infantry battalion with add-ons: tanks or infantry, artillery in direct support, engineers and so on and so forth. Our battle group in Afghanistan was always based on one of Canada’s nine infantry battalions with attachments from a tank regiment, an artillery regiment and so on. But even the infantry battalion, the “base” of the battle group had to be augmented. Canada has not had one, single, full strength, properly organized and equipped infantry battalion for more than a decade. A battalion ought to have 950± soldiers and its own, organic, mortars, heavy machine guns, anti-tank or assault weapons, and, and , and … but many years ago, in an effort to “balance” the army the infantry was (stupidly) stripped of its mortars ~ the artillery will take care of it, it was said … and, bless ’em, the gunners have not let the infantry down, but that doesn’t mean the decision to strip the mortars, especially, from the infantry made any military sense at all. It didn’t; it was a dumb decision ~ the wrong thing for all the wrong reasons. But, a good friend tells, me, the prevailing view in the Army, especially, is that nothing must ever be cut because it will never, ever be gotten back. Thus we strip the battalions but leave the empty shells ~ a Canadian battalions circa 2017 has 500+ soldiers, not the 1,000- it needs. Even at the height of the Afghan campaign, when Major General (then Lieutenant Colonel) Omer Lavoie led Operation Medusa (you know, the one which Harjit Sajan said he conceived as “the architect”) his battalion, the 1st Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment 1RCR) had to be augmented with a company from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry because there were not enough companies in all three of the RCR battalions that had not been deployed within the last 18 months … the Army, in other words, had been hollowed out for years, even decades.

April 2, 2017

The (inevitable) failure of the “Revolution in Military Affairs”

Filed under: Military, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In an article about security incident response automation, Bruce Schneier provides a useful thumbnail sketch of a US Army attempt to dispel the fog of war in real time:

While this is a laudable goal, there’s a fundamental problem with doing this in the short term. You can only automate what you’re certain about, and there is still an enormous amount of uncertainty in cybersecurity. Automation has its place in incident response, but the focus needs to be on making the people effective, not on replacing them ­ security orchestration, not automation.

This isn’t just a choice of words — it’s a difference in philosophy. The US military went through this in the 1990s. What was called the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) was supposed to change how warfare was fought. Satellites, drones and battlefield sensors were supposed to give commanders unprecedented information about what was going on, while networked soldiers and weaponry would enable troops to coordinate to a degree never before possible. In short, the traditional fog of war would be replaced by perfect information, providing certainty instead of uncertainty. They, too, believed certainty would fuel automation and, in many circumstances, allow technology to replace people.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. The US learned in Afghanistan and Iraq that there are a lot of holes in both its collection and coordination systems. Drones have their place, but they can’t replace ground troops. The advances from the RMA brought with them some enormous advantages, especially against militaries that didn’t have access to the same technologies, but never resulted in certainty. Uncertainty still rules the battlefield, and soldiers on the ground are still the only effective way to control a region of territory.

But along the way, we learned a lot about how the feeling of certainty affects military thinking. Last month, I attended a lecture on the topic by H.R. McMaster. This was before he became President Trump’s national security advisor-designate. Then, he was the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center. His lecture touched on many topics, but at one point he talked about the failure of the RMA. He confirmed that military strategists mistakenly believed that data would give them certainty. But he took this change in thinking further, outlining the ways this belief in certainty had repercussions in how military strategists thought about modern conflict.

McMaster’s observations are directly relevant to Internet security incident response. We too have been led to believe that data will give us certainty, and we are making the same mistakes that the military did in the 1990s. In a world of uncertainty, there’s a premium on understanding, because commanders need to figure out what’s going on. In a world of certainty, knowing what’s going on becomes a simple matter of data collection.

January 19, 2017

QotD: Elphy Bey rides again

Filed under: Britain, History, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

William G. K. Elphinstone (1782-1842) commanded the British 33rd Regiment of Foot (later the Duke of Wellington’s regiment, and today incorporated in the Yorkshire Regiment), and was almost certainly the worst battalion commander in any of the armies during the campaign. His troops broke at Quatre Bras and lost their colors at Waterloo, which he afterwards tried to cover up by secretly ordering new colors; a deception that failed to retrieve the regimental honor. He went on to prove quite possibly the most inept officer ever to command an army, when, as a major general during the First Afghan War (1839-1842), he dithered on so heroic a scale that, of his 4,000 troops and 10,000 camp followers, only one man escaped death or capture.

Al Nofi, “Al Nofi’s CIC”, Strategy Page, 2015-06-18.

November 26, 2016

Using anecdata to paint a picture of PTSD-plagued veterans

Filed under: Cancon, Media, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Colby Cosh on the way Canadian Forces veterans have been portrayed in the media:

Yesterday the Surgeon General of Canada issued the latest in a series of annual technical reports on Canada’s great soldier suicide crisis. If you occasionally read the newspapers, and particularly if you ever pick up the Globe and Mail, you have probably been left with the impression that it is astonishing anyone who fought in Afghanistan in a Canadian uniform is still alive and sane. There is a tradition in newspapering, admittedly a recent one, of being very cautious and elliptical in reporting on suicides for fear of encouraging imitators. The Globe observed the run-up to Remembrance Day this year by blowing out the sphincter of that tradition, offering intimate details of suicides by a sequence of Canadian Armed Forces veterans left to struggle with the psychic aftereffects of witnessing combat.

The idea was to point an accusing finger at an unfeeling, ignorant state and to awaken the consciences of those who elect representatives to it. We are all to blame, you see: Canadian soldiers come home with nerves shattered by conflicts to which we have dispatched them, and yet at election time we overlook a lengthening trail of dead and a choir of the emotionally tormented. Veterans scarcely ever turn up in the newspaper, as veterans, without the words “suicide” or “PTSD” nipping at their heels. They are stalked by drink, painkillers, nightmares, uncontrollable outbursts of violence, homelessness. Only by the wildest of chances will one turn up in the news as a successful, well-adjusted individual.

So it is with trepidation and nausea that one turns to the Surgeon General’s report, hoping for a careful epidemiological documentation of the crisis. What one quickly finds is that when the overwhelmingly male Canadian Forces are compared to the ordinary male population… there is no crisis. Until very recently, CAF members have had significantly lower rates of suicide than male civilians in the same age brackets. The rates are statistically indistinguishable for the most recent time period in the table, 2010-12, owing to a transitory spike in CAF suicides in 2011.

Soldiers are, by this measure, healthier if anything than the average chap. This is not really surprising if you do not read the newspaper, and you merely hold to the old-fashioned idea that the military is pretty good at taking man-children and giving them purpose, abilities, structure, and a social network.

November 11, 2016

Mark Knopfler – “Remembrance Day”

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 13:41

A Remembrance Day slideshow using Mark Knopfler’s wonderful “Remembrance Day” song from the album Get Lucky (2009). The early part of the song conveys many British images, but I have added some very Canadian images also which fit with many of the lyrics. The theme and message is universal… ‘we will remember them’.

November 24, 2015

Soviet military drinking in Afghanistan

Filed under: Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Mark Galeotti on what happened when you combine the legendary appetite for alcohol of soldiers with the ramshackle repression of the Soviet system:

Soldiers love to drink. Russians love to drink. No wonder that Russian soldiers can be amongst the hardest-core boozers around. If anything, this was even more the case in Soviet times when the very difficulties of getting hold of booze acted as a spur to the ingenuity for which Russians are also rightly known. The same guys who could fix a tank engine with sticky tape or make the world’s toughest rifle were formidable and innovative in their quest for a drink.

Being assigned to the ground crew on a MiG-25 interceptor, for example, was a good gig. The supersonic fighter was nicknamed gastronom — delicatessen — because its nose-mounted radar and generator were cooled by more than 200 liters of water/methanol mix, which is a ghastly brew, but as a base not much more ghastly than the murderous samogon homebrew many Soviets turned to, especially during Mikhail Gorbachev’s well-meant but ill-thought-through anti-alcohol campaign. The usual rule of thumb was a single shot a day. Any more, and your chances of going blind were good.

As it should now be clear to you, dear reader, Soviet soldiers were not that discriminating when sourcing their sauce. When I was interviewing veterans of the Soviet–Afghan War for my doctorate, many and horrifying were the accounts of parties fueled by aftershave, rosewater, and rubbing alcohol. The military hierarchy denied the enlisted men legal access to drink, yet fighting a high-stress and — in the early years, at least — officially unacknowledged war, they were nothing if not committed to the quest.

November 11, 2015

Mark Knopfler – “Remembrance Day”

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

A Remembrance Day slideshow using Mark Knopfler’s wonderful “Remembrance Day” song from the album Get Lucky (2009). The early part of the song conveys many British images, but I have added some very Canadian images also which fit with many of the lyrics. The theme and message is universal… ‘we will remember them’.

November 6, 2015

Canada’s new Minister of National Defence

Filed under: Cancon, Military, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In the National Post, Adrian Humphreys provides a look at the new defence minister in Justin Trudeau’s cabinet:

Defence minister Harjit Sajjan

Many defence ministers pose for photos with military hardware, but few pull off the true badass combat stance as well as Harjit Singh Sajjan — draped in flak jacket and camouflage, gripping an assault rifle on an actual battlefield.

Sajjan was, until recently, a decorated Lieutenant-Colonel in the Armed Forces, the first Sikh Canadian to command an army regiment.

“Command breaks down barriers because no one looks at what you look like when the bullets are flying,” he said in 2011. “Having to carry your, you know, wounded soldiers off the battlefield, not just wounded, but the ones that have been killed and place them into a helicopter, nothing prepares you for that.”

Sajjan, sworn in Wednesday as Canada’s new Minister of National Defence, was, in military lingo, “a trigger puller.”

He was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina and three times to Afghanistan, for which he was awarded one of the military’s highest recognitions, the Order of Military Merit, for reducing the Taliban’s influence in Kandahar Province.

“He has a taste for the reality of war and that’s very, very important,” said David Bercuson, director of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

“He will have seen the aftermath of the effect of war on some of our men and women, which is a major issue with veteran’s affairs,” said Bercuson.

[…]

He served as a reservist, and was deployed with the Canadian peacekeeping forces to Bosnia in 1996.

In 2006 he served in Afghanistan, playing a key intelligence advisory role to Brig.-Gen David Fraser in the successful Operation Medusa offensive against the Taliban. He returned to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2011.

Rising to the rank of reserve lieutenant-colonel, he was named commander of the B.C. Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own), in 2012.

I’m pleased that Trudeau managed to find someone to fill this cabinet post who has actual military experience in the field (as opposed to a former general or admiral). I hope he can fight his political corner to get the Canadian Forces the updated equipment they so desperately need, even if the F-35 is not going to be part of the package (Trudeau explicitly promised to drop the F-35 purchase during the election).

November 4, 2015

The XM-25 “Punisher” isn’t dead yet

Filed under: Military, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Five years back, there were interesting reports about a prototype weapon that seemed to have an inside edge for getting into the hands of front-line troops in Afghanistan for specific bunker-busting and similar missions. Then it went silent. Recently, Strategy Page says it may be back in the running:

Two years after having its budget sharply cut in 2013 the U.S. Army XM25 grenade launcher is back on track and is now expected to enter service by 2017. It’s been a long road from concept to acceptance and mass production. The army began working on this type of weapon back in the 1990s as the OICW (Objective Individual Combat Weapon) and that mutated into the XM25 (the “X” in XM25 designates a system that is still in development). Since then the similar South Korean K11 and Chinese ZH05 have appeared. The XM25 is the only one of three to have been tested extensively in combat but because of a misfire during a demonstration, budget cuts and some troops finding there were not really that many situations calling for the XM25, the system was thought to be cancelled (development funding was eliminated) in 2013. But the army managed to keep the project on life support. That was mainly because a lot of troops who got to use it in combat liked it a lot and even gave it a nickname; “punisher.”

The initial spectacular success and popularity of the XM25 grenade launchers in Afghanistan led the army to request that the weapon enter regular service as the M25 in 2014. But Congress, looking for ways to reduce military spending in 2013 cut all money for the M25. The army never gave up and managed to scrounge enough cash to build 1,100 of them. Currently the XM25 cost $35,000 each with the 25mm ammo going for $55 per round. Initially SOCOM (Special Operations Command) had some XM25s and some enthusiastic users but in 2013, with few American troops in combat there is not a lot of demand for a weapon like this. The resumption of counter-terrorism efforts in the Middle East and Afghanistan changed that led to more support for reviving the project.

When the first evaluation models of the XM25 arrived in Afghanistan in 2011 the weapon soon became much sought after by infantry troops. There were never more than a few dozen XM25s in Afghanistan and limited supplies of ammunition. Despite that the weapon quickly developed a formidable reputation. The Special Forces had priority on the weapon because it is very useful for special operations missions. The army planned to buy enough so that they could issue one per infantry squad. There are 27 squads in an infantry battalion.

September 16, 2015

The African migrants are not driven by demographic change

Filed under: Africa, Europe — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Matt Ridley explains that demography does not explain the sudden influx of refugees from Africa to the European Union:

Even the most compassionate of European liberals must wonder at times whether this year’s migration crisis is just the beginning of a 21st-century surge of poor people that will overwhelm the rich countries of our continent. With African populations growing fastest, are we glimpsing a future in which the scenes we saw on the Macedonian border, or on Kos or in the seas around Sicily last week will seem tame?

I don’t think so. The current migration crisis is being driven by war and oppression, not demography. Almost two thirds of the migrants reaching Europe by boat this year are from three small countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. These are not even densely populated countries: their combined populations come to less than England’s, let alone Britain’s, and none of them is in the top 20 for population growth rates.

Well then, perhaps that is even more ominous. If these three relatively small countries can cause such turmoil, imagine what would happen if say the more populous countries in Africa fell into similar chaos. Today Africa’s population (north and sub-Saharan) is about 50 per cent larger than Europe’s (East and West). By 2050, when — according to United Nations estimates — Africa’s population will have more than doubled from 1.1 billion to about 2.4 billion people and Europe’s will have shrunk from 740 million to about 709 million, there will be more than three Africans for every European.

Actually, demography is a poor predictor of migration. Nowhere in the world are people leaving countries specifically because of population growth or density. The population density of Germany is five times as high as that of Afghanistan or Eritrea: unlike water, people often move up population gradients. Tiny Eritrea, with only five million people, is a hell-hole for purely political reasons. It has a totalitarian government that tries to make North Korea and the old East Germany look tame: it conscripts every 17-year-old into lifelong and total service of the state. No wonder 3 per cent of its people have already left.

April 13, 2015

QotD: The real man behind Kipling’s Man Who Would Be King

Filed under: Books, Britain, History, India, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It is quite possible that Kipling based Daniel Dravot, the hero of The Man Who Would Be King, on Dr Harlan. He would surely have heard of the American, and there is a strong echo, in Dravot’s fictional Kafiristan adventure (published in 1895), of Harlan’s aspirations first to the throne of Afghanistan, and later successfully to the kingship of Ghor. as described in Gardner’s Memoirs (published in 1890); whether Harlan’s story was true is beside the point. Like many passages in his astonishing career, it lacks corroboration; on the other hand it was accepted, along with the rest, by such authorities as Major Pearse, who was Gardner’s editor, and the celebrated Dr Wolff.

Josiah Harlan (1799-1871) was born in Newlin Township, Pennsylvania, the son of a merchant whose family came from County Durham. He studied medicine, sailed as a supercargo to China, and after being jilted by his American fiancée, returned to the East, serving as surgeon with the British Army in Burma. He then wandered to Afghanistan, where he embarked on that career as diplomat, spy, mercenary soldier, and double (sometimes treble) agent which so enraged Colonel Gardner. The details are confused, but it seems that Harlan, after trying to take Dost Mohammed’s throne, and capturing a fortress, fell into the hands of Runjeet Singh. The Sikh maharaja, recognising a rascal of genius when he saw one sent him as envoy to Dost Mohammed; Harlan, travelling disguised as a dervish was also working to subvert Dost’s throne on behalf of Shah Sujah, the exiled Afghan king; not content with this, he ingratiated himself with Dost and became his agent in the Punjab — in effect, serving three masters against each other. Although as one contemporary remarks with masterly understatement, Harlan’s life was now somewhat complicated, he satisfied at least two of his employers: Shah Sujah made him a Companion of the Imperial Stirrup, and Runjeet gave him the government of three provinces which he administered until, it is said, the maharaja discovered that he was running a coining plant on the pretence of studying chemistry. Even then, Runjeet continued to use him as an agent, and it was Harlan who successfully suborned the Governor of Peshawar to betray the province to the Sikhs. He then took service with Dost Mohammed (whom he had just betrayed), and was sent with an expedition against the Prince of Kunduz; it was in this campaign that the patriotic doctor “surmounted the Indian Caucasus, and unfurled my country’s banner to the breeze under a salute of 26 guns … the star-spangled banner waved gracefully among the icy peaks.” What this accomplished is unclear but soon afterwards Harlan managed to obtain the throne of Ghor from its hereditary prince. This was in 1838; a year later he was acting as Dost’s negotiator with the British invaders at Kabul; Dost subsequently fled, and Harlan was last seen having breakfast with “Sekundar Burnes”, the British political agent.

Thus far Harlan’s story rests largely on a biographical sketch by the missionary Dr Joseph Wolff; they met briefly during Harlan’s governorship of Gujerat, but Wolff (who of course never had the advantage of reading the present packet of the Flashman Papers confesses that he knows nothing of the American after 1839. In fact, Harlan returned to the U.S. in 1841, married in 1849, raised Harlan’s Light Horse for the Union in the Civil War, was invalided out, and ended his days practising medicine in San Francisco; obviously he must have revisited the Punjab in the 1840s, when Flashman knew him. Of his appearance and character other contemporaries tell us little; Dr Wolff describes “a fine tall gentleman” given to whistling Yankee Doodle”, and found him affable and engaging. Gardner mentions meeting him at Gujerat in the 1830s, but speaks no ill of him at that time.

His biographer, Dr Joseph Wolff, D.D., LL.D (1795-1862), was a scholar, traveller, and linguist whose adventures were even more eccentric than Harlan’s. Known as “the Christian Dervish”, and “the Protestant Xavier”, he was born in Germany, the son of a Jewish rabbi, and during his “extraordinary nomadic career” converted to Christianity, was expelled from Rome for questioning Papal infallibility, scoured the Middle and Far East in search of the Lost Tribes of Israel, preached Christianity in Jerusalem, was shipwrecked in Cephalonia, captured by Central Asian slave-traders (who priced him at only £2.50, much to his annoyance), and walked 600 miles through Afghanistan “in a state of nudity”, according to the Dictionary of National Biography. He made a daring return to Afghanistan in search of the missing British agents, Stoddart and Connolly, and narrowly escaped death at the hands of their executioner. At other times Dr Wolff preached to the U.S. Congress, was a deacon in New Jersey, an Anglican priest in Ireland, and finally became vicar of a parish in Somerset. As Flashman has remarked, there were some odd fellows about in the earlies. (See Gardner; The Travels and Adventures of Dr. Wolff (1860); Dictionary of American Biography; D.N.B.)

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, 1990.

April 2, 2015

QotD: Punjab and the Sikhs, 1845

Filed under: Britain, History, India, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

First of all, you must do as Sale bade me, and look at the map. In ’45 John Company held Bengal and the Carnatic and the east coast, more or less, and was lord of the land up to the Sutlej, the frontier beyond which lay the Five Rivers country of the Sikhs, the Punjab. But things weren’t settled then as they are now; we were still shoring up our borders, and that north-west frontier was the weak point, as it still is. That way invasion had always come, from Afghanistan, the vanguard of a Mohammedan tide, countless millions strong, stretching back as far as the Mediterranean. And Russia, We’d tried to sit down in Afghanistan, as you know, and got a bloody nose, and while that had been avenged since, we weren’t venturing that way again. So it remained a perpetual threat to India and ourselves — and all that lay between was Punjab and the Sikhs.

You know something of them: tall, splendid fellows with uncut hair and beards, proud and exclusive as Jews, and well disliked, as clannish, easily-recognised folk often are — the Muslims loathed them, the Hindoos distrusted then, and even today T. Atkins, while admiring them as stout fighters, would rather be brigaded with anyone else — excepting their cavalry, which you’d be glad of anywhere. For my money they were the most advanced people in India — well, they were only a sixth of the Punjab’s population, but they ruled the place, so there you are.

We’d made a treaty with these strong, clever, treacherous, civilised savages, respecting their independence north of the Sutlej while we ruled south of it. It was good business for both parties: they remained free and friends with John Company, and we had a tough, stable buffer between us and the wild tribes beyond the Khyber — let the Sikhs guard the passes, while we went about our business in India without the expense and trouble of having to deal with the Afghans ourselves. That’s worth bearing in mind when you hear talk of our “aggressive forward policy” in India: it simply wasn’t common sense for us to take over the Punjab — not while it was strong and united.

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, 1990.

February 4, 2015

QotD: The retreat from Kabul, 1842

Filed under: Asia, Britain, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

POSSIBLY there has been a greater shambles in the history of warfare than our withdrawal from Kabul; probably there has not. Even now, after a lifetime of consideration, I am at a loss for words to describe the superhuman stupidity, the truly monumental incompetence, the bland blindness to reason of Elphy Bey and his advisers. If you had taken the greatest military geniuses of the ages, placed them in command of our army, and asked them to ruin it utterly as speedily as possible, they could not — I mean it seriously — have done it as surely and swiftly as he did. And he believed he was doing his duty. The meanest sweeper in our train would have been a fitter commander.

Shelton was not told that we would march on the morning of the 6th January, until evening on the 5th. He laboured like a madman through the night, loading up the huge baggage train, assembling the troops within the cantonment in their order of march, and issuing orders for the conduct and disposal of the entire force. It is a few words on paper: as I remember it, there was a black night of drifting snow, with storm lanterns flickering, troops tramping unseen in the dark, a constant babble of voices, the neighing and whining of the great herd of baggage animals, the rumble of wagons, messengers dashing to and fro, great heaps of luggage piled high outside the houses, harassed officers demanding to know where such-and-such a regiment was stationed, and where so-and-so had gone, bugle calls ringing in the night wind, feet stamping, children crying, and on the lighted verandah of his office, Shelton, red-faced and dragging at his collar, with his staff scurrying about him while he tried to bring some order out of the inferno.

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman, 1969.

January 24, 2015

QotD: General Elphinstone in Afghanistan, 1842

Filed under: Asia, Books, Britain, History, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

But looking back I can say that, all unwittingly, Kabul and the army were right to regard Elphy’s arrival as an incident of the greatest significance. It opened a chapter: it was a prelude to events that rang round the world. Elphy, ably assisted by McNaghten, was about to reach the peak of his career; he was going to produce the most shameful, ridiculous disaster in British military history.

No doubt Thomas Hughes would find it significant that in such a disaster I would emerge with fame, honour, and distinction — all quite unworthily acquired. But you, having followed my progress so far, won’t be surprised at all.

Let me say that when I talk of disasters I speak with authority. I have served at Balaclava, Cawnpore, and Little Big Horn. Name the biggest born fools who wore uniform in the nineteenth century — Cardigan, Sale, Custer, Raglan, Lucan — I knew them all. Think of all the conceivable misfortunes that can arise from combinations of folly, cowardice, and sheer bad luck, and I’ll give you chapter and verse. But I still state unhesitatingly, that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgement — in short, for the true talent for catastrophe — Elphy Bey stood alone. Others abide our question, but Elphy outshines them all as the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day.

Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War and let it develop to such a ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganized enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with the touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision, and out of order wrought complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again.

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman, 1969.

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