October 2, 2015

Marcus Porcius Cato – the man who almost stopped Julius Caesar

Filed under: Europe, History, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In The Freeman, Lawrence W. Reed talks about one of the last few Republicans in the Rome of Julius Caesar’s ascendance:

In the estimations of many historians, two men hold the honor as the most notable defenders of the Roman Republic. Marcus Tullius Cicero was one. Marcus Porcius Cato, or “Cato the Younger,” was the other.

Since there was a “younger,” there must have been an “elder,” too. Cato the Elder was the great grandfather of the younger. Both men, separated by more than a century, were influential in public office. Think of the elder as the social conservative, concerned in his day with preserving the customs and traditions of Rome. The younger was one of history’s early libertarians, interested more in personal and political liberties because he believed that if they were lost, nothing else mattered. It is this second one to whom I refer in the balance of this essay as simply “Cato.”

By the time of Cato’s birth in 95 BC, the Roman Republic was long in the tooth. Founded four centuries earlier, it had risen from obscurity to political and economic dominance in the Mediterranean. Rome was easily the world’s wealthiest and most powerful society. It wasn’t a libertarian paradise — slavery was a part of its makeup, as it was even more brutal everywhere else — but Rome had taken liberty to a zenith the world had never seen before and wouldn’t see again for a long time after it finally fell. The constitution of the republic embodied term limits; separation of powers; checks and balances; due process; habeas corpus; the rule of law; individual rights; and elected, representative legislative bodies, including the famous Senate. All of this was hanging by a thread in the first century BC.

Cato was just five years of age when Rome went to war with its former allies in the Italian peninsula — the so-called “Social War.” Though the conflict lasted just two years, its deleterious effects were huge. The decades to follow would be marked by the rise of factions and conflict and local armies loyal to their commanders instead of the larger society. A “welfare-warfare” state was putting down deep roots as Cato grew up. The limited government, personal responsibility and extensive civil society so critical to the republic’s previous success were in an agonizing, century-long process of collapse. Even many of those who recognized the decay around them nonetheless drank the Kool-Aid, succumbing to the temptations of power or subsidies or both.

Before the age of 30, Cato had become a supremely disciplined individual, a devotee of Stoicism in every respect. He commanded a legion in Macedon and won immense loyalty and respect from the soldiers for the example he set, living and laboring no differently from day to day than he required of his men. He first won election to public office (to the post of quaestor, supervising financial and budgetary matters for the state) in 65 BC and quickly earned a reputation as scrupulously meticulous and uncompromisingly honest. He went out of his way to hold previous quaestors accountable for their dishonesty and misappropriation of funds, which he himself uncovered.

Later he served in the Roman Senate, where he never missed a session and criticized other senators who did. Through his superb oratory in public and deft maneuverings in private, he worked tirelessly to restore fealty to the ideals of the fading Republic.

July 22, 2015

The pleasures of a weak government

Filed under: Britain, Economics, Government, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait sings the praises of “an infirm hand on the tiller” during the War of the Roses:

For my point is that this royal “hand on the tiller” that Wilson says the country so much needed can sometimes be rather too firm.

Wilson is right that medieval civil war, or medieval war of any kind, could be a disaster to the wider society in which it happened. A routine military method in those days was for a retreating army to wreck the countryside, burning crops and killing livestock, in order to deny these resources to an advancing enemy. That this was a death sentence to whoever lived in this devastated area may have troubled the people who inflicted such horrors, but not enough to stop them doing it whenever they were told to. Elsewhere in the book, Wilson mentions an episode of just this sort, in which the King of Scotland inflicted just this horrible fate upon great swathes of Scotland, when he was faced with an invading English army. Those medieval wars between England and Scotland were not quite the nationalist confrontations that Anglo-Scottish wars later became. They were battles between aristocratic dynasties, between “families”, in the Godfather movies sense. Civilian populations were more prizes to be contested, to be owned or failing that denied to an enemy, than the ideologically enthused participants in the contest, as they became later, for instance in the seventeenth century.

But, on the whole, England’s Wars of the Rose, as they later came to be called, were not like this. These “wars” tended to consist of relatively small armies having sometimes very bloody battles with one another, but not, on the whole, creating all that much havoc for nearby civilians, apart from the unlucky civilians whose crops or animals had been on the actual battlefield.

So, what of that mercantile class which, in Wilson’s word, “emerged” at the same time as all of this rather low level fighting? He makes it sound like an unrelated coincidence. But might there not be an element of cause and effect in operation here? Was not the very fact that all this commerce, all this development of the wool trade, was “beyond politics” perhaps one of the key things that enabled it to “emerge”?

For many people, the mere possibility that the dynastic fights of the fifteenth century might degenerate, even if only in their immediate vicinity, into something more like the English — or worse, the German — civil wars of later times, was probably enough to make them believe, as Wilson believes, that a firm hand on the tiller would be preferable to rival hands flailing at each other. But in the meantime, it surely must have helped farmers — often farmers way off the beaten tracks of the contending English armies in places like East Anglia, and merchants, and speculators, and seafarers, that the aristocrats who might have taken command of their “emerging” arrangements, who, had they been all on the same side, might have brought them into politics, and if not ruined them then at least slowed them down quite severely, instead had other things on their minds. Basically, each other. What I am suggesting is that, from the commercial point of view, the Wars of the Roses might have been quite good wars, complicated enough to divert the attentions of aristocrats away from their usual anti-commercial meddlings, yet not too widespread in their destructive effect. That the Wars of the Rose were, for some, very bad wars, I do not contest.

July 18, 2015

QotD: Sherman’s March to the Sea

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

Southerners grew confident that the besieger Sherman would become the besieged in Atlanta after the election, as his long supply lines back to Tennessee would be cut and a number of Confederate forces might converge to keep him locked up behind Confederate lines.

Instead, Sherman cut loose on November 15, 1864 — despite Grant’s worries and Lincoln’s bewilderment — and headed to the Atlantic Coast in what would soon be known as “The March to the Sea,” itself a prelude to an even more daring winter march through the Carolinas to arrive at the rear of Robert E. Lee’s army, trapped in Virginia at war’s end.

After daring Sherman to leave Atlanta, and declaring that he would suffer the fate of Napoleon in Russia, Confederate forces wilted. The luminaries of the Confederacy — Generals Bragg, Hardee, and Hood — pled numerical inferiority and usually avoided the long Northern snake that wound through the Georgia heartland. Sherman’s army had been pared down of its sick and auxiliaries, but was still huge, composed of Midwestern yeomen who liked camping out and were used to living off the land. Post-harvest Georgia was indeed rich, and Sherman’s more than 60,000 marchers soon learned that they could live off the land in richer style than they ever had while occupying Atlanta. In their wake, they left a 300 mile-long, 60 mile-wide swath of looting and destruction from Atlanta to Savannah.

Yet there was a method to Sherman’s mad five-week march. He burned plantations, freed slaves, destroyed factories, and tore up railroads — but more or less left alone the farms and small towns of ordinary Southerners. His purposes were threefold: to punish the plantation class, the small minority of Confederates who owned slaves, as the culprits for the war; to destroy the Southern economy and remind the general population, as Sherman put it, “that war and individual ruin were now to be synonymous”; and to humiliate the Confederate military, especially what he called the cavalier classes that boasted of their martial audacity but would not dare confront such a huge army of battle-hardened troopers from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and other Midwestern states. In this context, the message was not lost: Unionists were not just New England Yankee manufacturers, but farmers who did their own hard work in harsh, cold lands more challenging than temperate Georgia; material advantages and repeating rifles were not antithetical to martial audacity, as a Michigan farmer with a Sharps rifle was more than a match for a plumed Southern cavalryman who boasted of killing Yankees.

Victor Davis Hanson, “Sherman at 150”, Victor Davis Hanson’s Private Papers, 2014-08-06.

April 17, 2015

Grant and Lee at Appomattox

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

In The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson posted an article earlier this month marking the 150th anniversary of Appomattox:

If ever the vanquished had reason to be bitter, or a victor had cause to be punitive, it was Lee and Grant. Yet their comportment at Appomattox stands today as a testament to the ideals of national reconciliation, goodwill, and honor and respect for one’s enemy. In his epic narrative history of the Civil War, Shelby Foote recounts two instances from Appomattox that suggest Lee and Grant were both thinking of the greater good, keenly aware that an enduring peace depended in part on their humility and generosity.

Early on the morning of April 9, Lee called a conference with his generals so they could give their opinions on surrender. All of them concurred that under the circumstances surrender was the only option, except the young Brigadier General Edward Alexander, who, writes Foote, “proposed that the troops take to the woods, individually and in small groups, under orders to report to the governors of their respective states. That way, he believed, two thirds of the army would avoid capture by the Yankees.”

Lee gently rebuked Alexander, reminding him, “We must consider its effect on the country as a whole.” The men, he said, “would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections that may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.” Alexander would later write: “I had not a single word to say in reply. He had answered my suggestion from a plane so far above it that I was ashamed of having made it.”

Grant’s terms of surrender were remarkable for their leniency on the Confederate Army. Although the rebels would be required to turn over their arms, artillery, and private property, Grant added an impromptu final sentence: “This will not embrace the side arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage.” At Lee’s request, he also allowed Confederate cavalrymen and artillerists who owned their own horses and mules to keep them, reasoning that most were small farmers and would not be able to put in a crop “to carry themselves and their families through the next winter without the aid of the horses they are now riding.”

At this crucial moment, it was most important to Grant and Lee that the soldiers return home safely and get on with civilian life as soon as possible. Returning to his men, Lee told them, “I have done the best I could for you. Go home now, and if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well, and I shall always be proud of you.” En route back to his headquarters, Grant heard salutes and cheering begin to rise up from nearby Union batteries. He sent orders to have them stopped. “The war is over,” he said. “The rebels are our countrymen again.”

April 14, 2015

Strategies of the Sri Lankan civil war

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

In The Diplomat, Peter Layton looks back at the strategies that eventually ended the twenty-five year civil war in Sri Lanka:

How to win a civil war in a globalized world where insurgents skillfully exploit offshore resources? With most conflicts now being such wars, this is a question many governments are trying to answer. Few succeed, with one major exception being Sri Lanka where, after 25 years of civil war the government decisively defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and created a peace that appears lasting. This victory stands in stark contrast to the conflicts fought by well-funded Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. How did Sri Lanka succeed against what many considered the most innovative and dangerous insurgency force in the world? Three main areas stand out.

First, the strategic objective needs to be appropriate to the enemy being fought. For the first 22 years of the civil war the government’s strategy was to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table using military means. Indeed, this was the advice foreign experts gave as the best and only option. In 2006, just before the start of the conflict’s final phase, retired Indian Lieutenant General AS Kalkat in 2006 declared, “There is no armed resolution to the conflict. The Sri Lanka Army cannot win the war against the Lankan Tamil insurgents.”

Indeed, the LTTE entered negotiations five times, but talks always collapsed, leaving a seemingly stronger LTTE even better placed to defeat government forces. In mid-2006, sensing victory was in its grasp, the LTTE deliberately ended the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire and initiated the so-called Eelam War IV. In response, the Sri Lankan government finally decided to change its strategic objective, from negotiating with the LTTE to annihilating it.

To succeed, a strategy needs to take into account the adversary. In this case it needed to be relevant to the nature of the LTTE insurgency. Over the first 22 years of the civil war, the strategies of successive Sri Lankan governments did not fulfill this criterion. Eventually, in late 2005 a new government was elected that choose a different strategic objective that matched the LTTE’s principal weaknesses while negating their strengths.

The LTTE’s principal problem was its finite manpower base. Only 12 percent of Sri Lanka’s population were Lankan Tamils and of these it was believed that only some 300,000 actively supported the LTTE. Moreover, the LTTE’s legitimacy as an organization was declining. By 2006, the LTTE relied on conscription – not volunteers – to fill its ranks and many of these were children. At the operational level some seeming strengths could also be turned against the LTTE, including its rigid command structure, a preference for fighting conventional land battles, and a deep reliance on international support.

April 11, 2015

Robert E. Lee

Filed under: History, Media, Military, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In City Journal, Ryan L. Cole reviews a recent book on one of America’s most famous generals:

America’s Civil War presents a set of forever ponderable “what ifs.” What if a Union soldier hadn’t discovered plans for the Confederate invasion of Maryland in 1862? What if Stonewall Jackson hadn’t been hit by friendly fire after the Battle of Chancellorsville? What if George Meade had pursued the wounded Army of Northern Virginia in the wake of Gettysburg? The list goes on.

But perhaps the most vexing hypothetical has always been: What if Robert E. Lee had accepted Abraham Lincoln’s offer to command Union forces at the outset of the conflict? This would have likely robbed the Confederacy of its greatest military mind. It may have also robbed the South of its fleeting glories, dramatically shortened the war, and made Lee — not Ulysses S. Grant or even Abraham Lincoln — the savior of the Union. It could even have made Lee a second George Washington.

This decision and its ramifications are the basis of The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, Jonathan Horn’s thoughtful new life of the Confederate general. It would be wrong to call this a biography. Though Horn, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, assays Lee’s life from birth to death, the book is built around the premise that Lee was practically destined to become the second coming of Washington. Yet he declined, and the consequences of his refusal altered the course of the nation.

Lee had familial and professional connections to Washington. His father, Henry Lee III, better known as “Light-Horse” Harry Lee, was a dashing cavalry officer in the Continental Army. General Washington was impressed by Lee’s bravery and invited the young Virginian to join his personal staff. When Lee begged off, Washington asked Congress to give him an independent command. Like some other young officers, Lee found a mentor in Washington, who had no biological children of his own. He did, however, adopt and raise Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, as his own son. Custis’s daughter, Mary, wed Robert E. Lee. Their children, by birth and marriage, were direct descendants of America’s original first lady.

The Lees lived in Arlington House, a Potomac mansion overlooking Washington, built by Custis as a shrine to his adoptive father and a repository for his relics. Through marriage, Lee was heir to the tactile remains of Washington’s legacy; even the slaves he inherited from his father-in-law were descendants of those who had toiled at Mount Vernon. In his opening chapters, Horn carefully draws the connections between the two titular subjects and plots Lee’s rise to military distinction in the years leading up to the Civil War. The history is simply fascinating. Horn is a graceful writer, and when the occasion warrants, has a suitable flair for the dramatic. The pages blaze by.

March 26, 2015

QotD: Picking sides in historical struggles

Filed under: History, Liberty, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

All laws and regulations have unforeseen consequences. That usually means unintended damage, but there’s no law of history that says every unplanned outcome is pernicious.

If you’re an advocate of a free society — one in which all arrangements are voluntary and there is the least coercive interference from governments or other thugs — history will present you with an unending series of conundrums. Whom do you side with in the Protestant Reformation, for example? The Catholic Church banned books and tortured scholars, and their official structure is one of hierarchy and authority. Easy enemy, right? Clear-cut bad guy. But the Church had kept the State in check for centuries — and vice versa, permitting seeds of freedom to root and flourish in the gaps between power centers. Whereas the Protestant states tended to be more authoritarian than the Catholic ones, with Luther and Calvin (not to mention the Anglicans) advocating orthodoxy through force. There’s a reason all those Northern princes embraced the Reformation: they wanted a cozier partnership of church and state.

This is certainly not the history I was taught in my Protestant private schools.

Similarly, most of us were schooled to side with the Union in the Civil War, to see Lincoln as a savior and the Confederacy as pure evil. But as much as the war may have resulted, however accidentally, in emancipating slaves, it also obliterated civil liberties, centralized power, strengthened central banking and fiat currencies and — to borrow from Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s great book title — enslaved free men.

“Father Abraham,” as the pietists called him after his assassination, was a tyrant whose primary goal was always what he actually achieved: central power over an involuntary union. Recasting this guy as an abolitionist hero is one of the many perverse legacies of America’s official history. But it’s a mistake to simply reverse the Establishment’s verdict and claim that the Confederacy was heroic. Plenty of Johnny Rebs were fighting a righteous battle against what they rightly deemed to be foreign invaders, but even if you ignore the little problem of the South’s “peculiar institution,” the Confederate government was no more liberal than its Northern rival. “While the Civil War saw the triumph in the North of Republican neo-mercantilism,” writes Hummel, “it saw the emergence in the South of full-blown State socialism.”

Reading history without taking sides may fit some scholarly ideal (actually, it seems to be a journalistic ideal created by the Progressive Movement to masquerade their views as the only unbiased ones), but it is not a realistic option. We cannot do value-free history. If we try, we instead hide or repress our biases, which makes them a greater threat to intellectual integrity.

Neither can we say, “a plague on both their houses,” and retreat to the realm of pure theory, libertarian or otherwise. We have to live in the real world, and even if we are not activists or revolutionaries, the same intellectual integrity that must reject “neutrality” also requires that we occasionally explore the question of second-best or least-evil options.

BK Marcus, “When evil institutions do good things”, Libertarian Standard, 2014-06-12.

December 6, 2014

QotD: Wartime failures of the peacetime army

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

Military operations are, arguably, especially mistake-prone, because militaries aren’t like other organizations. A normal bureaucracy has a job, and it does that job all the time. Militaries, on the other hand, tend to spend most of their time not really engaged in their main purpose: fighting wars.

Teles noted James Q. Wilson’s observation about the fundamental difference between a peacetime army and a wartime army. In peacetime, it’s easy to observe inputs but impossible to observe the output — which is to say, how ready your troops are to go out and kick some enemy butt on the battlefield. When you get into a war, this completely reverses. In the chaos of battle, it’s very difficult to know exactly what your people are doing. On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to observe whether they killed the people they were supposed to kill and took the territory they were supposed to take.

That means that the people who advance in a peacetime army are, unfortunately, not necessarily the same people you want around when the shooting breaks out. Virtually every major war I can think of has had a few well publicized firings early on of senior people who had done very well in the peacetime army but turned out not to be ready to lead their men into a fight. The most famous of these is probably George McClellan, who led the Union Army early in the Civil War. He was everything you could want in a soldier — second in his class at West Point, author of several training manuals, beloved of his men and his fellow officers. There was just one thing he wasn’t good at: winning battles. He was passive in the face of Confederate advances, and he didn’t want to attack until he had absolutely overwhelming force, by which he seemed to mean a huge chunk of the adult male population of the Union. You can argue that this was out of totally admirable concern for his men, but it still let the Confederates push uncomfortably close to Washington.

Ulysses S. Grant, the man who ultimately led the Union forces to victory, was a middling student at West Point and eventually left the army because it didn’t pay him enough to support a family. When the Civil War started, Grant was working for a harness company and not really excelling at it, either. But in some ways, having failed in the peacetime army made him more successful in the wartime version: He was not afraid to take risks, because he’d already tasted failure.

Megan McArdle, “Why Militaries Mess up So Often”, Bloomberg View, 2014-04-24

July 12, 2014

Canadians fighting in foreign wars – idealists, mercenaries … and jihadis

Filed under: Cancon, History, Military, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

In the Globe and Mail, Jack Granatstein remembers many occasions where individual Canadians have chosen to get involved in other peoples’ wars:

Some historical perspective might suggest that Canadians serving in foreign armies is not new to our times. Many Canadians served in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, fighting for the Union and against slavery. Upward of 50,000 Canadians are estimated to have enlisted in the Union forces, and a few hundred wore Confederate grey. Union recruiters operated openly in the Canadas during the war, and many Canadians went south to join up. Even Calixa Lavallée, the composer of O Canada, served as a Union officer. No one objected strenuously.

A few years later, Bishop Ignace Bourget and the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec raised troops to help defend the Papal States against the forces seeking unification of Italy. More than 500 well-educated francophones enlisted in the Papal Zouaves, ready to sail to Italy to defend the Vatican’s territory. Not all the Zouaves made it to Rome by the time the struggle ended in 1870, but eight died. Once again there were few complaints, although Protestants were surely annoyed at this ultramontane Catholic fervour.

In the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War pitted General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists against the Republican government of Spain. Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy supported the Nationalists. The Soviet Union backed the Republicans; so did at least 1,300 Canadians who volunteered to fight against fascism and went to Spain to serve in what went on to become the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, while another 300 fought in the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

The worry about today’s Canadians-fighting-in-foreign-wars revolves primarily around young Muslim men going abroad to fight religious wars. Thus far, few of them have come back to Canada with an obvious intent to bring the war back with them:

None of those war veterans brought jihad home to Canada, a legitimate concern we live with today, although some communists who fought in Spain might have had attitudes inimical to the Canadian capitalist state. Most of the Islamist volunteers, if they survive to return to Canada, will likely settle down to a “normal” life. But so long as ideology, religion, adventurism and a soldier’s pay still matter, Canadians will likely continue going off to fight in other people’s wars.

July 4, 2014

QotD: The English Civil War of 1776

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

It is fashionable today to view the Revolution as one might a traditional war between foreign powers, but, in truth, the break of 1776 was the latest in a series of fallings out between brothers — a civil war fought by men who were separated by an ocean but not by a history. Reading through the extraordinary profusion of pamphlets and gripes that the crisis produced, one cannot help but be impressed by how keenly the revolutionaries hewed to existing principle. Thomas Paine, perhaps the most radical of the agitators, may have believed that he could start the world all over again, but the colonists who marched with him mostly definitely did not. Instead, they sought a restoration of their inheritance, the Constitutional Congress asserting in 1774 that British subjects in America were “entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural-born subjects, within the realm of England.” In the same year, William Henry Drayton, a lawyer from South Carolina who later served as a delegate to the Congress, fleshed out the claim, establishing in a tract of his own that he and his countrymen were “entitled to the common law of England formed by their common ancestors; and to all and singular the benefits, rights, liberties and claims specified in Magna Charta, in the petition of Rights, in the Bill of Rights, and in the Act of Settlement.” With this popular sentiment, Drayton and his acolytes set themselves up as the Roundheads of the New World, linking spiritual arms with the parliamentarians of the English civil war, with the seditious architects of the Glorious Revolution, and with all who had established colonial outposts in the name of English freedom.


Fear of potentates ran deep within the Anglo-American tradition. When the mutinous Immortal Seven ushered in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, their invitation to William of Orange related that the people were “generally dissatisfied with the present conduct of the government, in relation to their religion, liberties and properties (all which have been greatly invaded).” As Daniel Hannan observes in Inventing Freedom, these three objects were philosophically inextricable. Protestantism, Hannan notes, was seen by the architects of English liberty in “political rather than theological terms, as guarantor of free speech, free conscience, and free parliament”; Catholicism, by contrast, was held to consume those virtues and to lead, inexorably, to monarchy. The fear of “popery” that helped to usher in the Glorious Revolution was certainly more pronounced in England that it was in America. But the concerns that motivated it were not, being instead inseparable from the fundamental political question, which was, “are we to rule ourselves or are we to be ruled by Kings and by Popes?” It stood to reason then that those who had become accustomed to expecting to enjoy a relationship with God that was not refereed by a host of spiritual bureaucrats would be able to more easily imagine governing their own worldly affairs, as it made sense that a culture in which the laity was encouraged to read Scripture for itself would be one in which subjects would more quickly rush to the defense of parliaments against the King. As ever, the instinct was toward the fragmentation of power.

Charles C.W. Cooke, “The Civil War of 1776”, National Review, 2014-07-03.

April 24, 2014

Beyond civil disobedience lies a second civil war

Filed under: Americas, Government, Military, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

A short quote posted at KA-CHING! led me to this very alarming blog post at Taxicab Depressions:

Mr Wheeler replied, “There is certainly no shortage of guns and corruption in Central America. If you have the means to smuggle a ton of cocaine, you can probably smuggle a ton of guns, too. But this was easier… the Justice Department and the ATF made the contacts and set up the networks, told the gun shops to cooperate, so all the Mexicans had to do was send in a straw buyer, make the purchase, and move the weapons south of the border.”

I said, “These people aren’t very smart… there are something like 300 million guns in America, and they have a robust shelf life. Even if all gun manufacturing stopped tomorrow, there would still be an abundance of guns in America for decades. The only way to disarm Americans is mass confiscation, and I feel pretty certain that would spark a civil war. I know several gun owners that would rather fight than give up their guns.”

Mr. Wheeler said, “Oh, I know dozens… perhaps hundreds that feel the same way. I really don’t think confiscation is something you need to worry about, because it will never work. There are simply too many of them, and too many people have guns that there is no record of. A confiscation program would only piss off the most dangerous people in America… the people who would shoot back. You are correct, a mass confiscation would provoke a civil war.”

I said, “Well, you are a military man… what would that look like?”

Wheeler said, “Well, it wouldn’t look like the first Civil War… no lines of men standing in ranks and shooting across a field at each other, no “North and South” or sharply defined state lines for friendly and enemy territories, at least, not in the beginning. No, it would look more like Iraq or Afghanistan, with house to house fighting, IED’s, snipers, small factions and independent militias operating on their own, refugees streaming away from battle zones in all directions…”

“But the first question to ask is who would the combatants be? I mean, the Army isn’t going to just roll out onto the street in tanks on day one, so my guess is that it would start out as a police action, with Federal agencies like ATF and FBI taking the lead, supported by local law enforcement. But once people start shooting back, they would have to ratchet things up, do things like institute curfews and roadblocks, and they would eventually try to press the various state Guard units into service. That’s where it all goes squirrelly, because both local law enforcement and the Guard will be riddled with people who support gun rights, regardless of what laws the politicians pass, and they won’t be crazy about having to police, and maybe even fight against, their own people. The Governors may well object to the state Guard units being activated and may not wish to cooperate…”

“And it is not clear to me how many LEO and Guardsmen would remain loyal to the government and how many would join the “rebellion”. My guess is that both sides would be riddled with defections, informants, and spies. But what if, say, the Gulf states like Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida secede, and they take control of all military bases and equipment, and you suddenly have gone from an insurgency with rifles to a breakaway nation, or maybe several breakaway nations, armed with fighter jets, drones, tanks, and a navy? Whoo, buddy… now all bets are off… kiss posse comitatus goodbye. This would be the ugliest thing this county has ever seen…”

I asked him several “what if” questions and let him riff on them… I just let him talk and wargame out the Second Civil War, there in the back seat of my car as we drove to the airport, and he painted a picture of horrific death and destruction. Once this conflict started, even the best-case scenarios he described sounded truly grim. He seemed to believe that civilian casualties would be extremely high, given how much fighting would centered in and around large cities, and that food would be used as a weapon, causing famine and starvation on a terrifying scale. Booby traps, IED’s, rampant bombings, drone strikes, snipers, local-level assassinations, mortars and shelling, death squads (both government and rebel), reprisal killings, torture… it sounded more like the Middle East than middle America.

Wheeler got quiet for a few moments, and then he said something that I will never, ever forget.

“These people are playing with matches… I don’t think they understand the scope and scale of the wildfire they are flirting with. They are fucking around with a civil war that could last a decade and cause millions of deaths… and the sad truth is that 95% of the problems we have in this country could be solved tomorrow, by noon… simply by dragging 100 people out in the street and shooting them in the fucking head.”

November 2, 2013

Catalonia – the next state in Europe?

Filed under: Europe, Government, History, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:53

Daniel Bogre Udell looks at the state of the independence movement in Catalonia, which has been part of Spain since the War of Spanish Succession in 1714, except for a brief interlude during the Spanish Civil War:

This year, on September 11, hundreds of thousands of Catalans joined hands to form a human chain that extended 460 kilometers across their region, from the French Pyrenean border to Valencia. Complete with matching t-shirts and slogans, this robust act of protest was astonishingly well-organised, which came as no surprise: it was in fact the echo of a mass demonstration that took place one year prior, when a million people took to the streets of Barcelona under the banner: “Catalonia: The Next State in Europe.”

The day after that first demonstration, Catalan President Artur Mas publicly endorsed the protest and called for a referendum on independence. Shortly after, he convoked early elections which produced a sweeping pro-referendum majority in Barcelona.

Overnight, Catalan politics changed. The Independentists were now in control. Unionists softened their rhetoric. Nearly two hundred towns in the Catalan countryside preemptively declared independence [ca]. Parliament passed a declaration of sovereignty.

Instead of taking this clamor seriously and engaging the Catalan public, most in the Spanish government, including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, positioned themselves firmly as antagonists. They insisted that referendum was illegal, framing Catalan nationalists as enemies of democracy and, in some extreme cases, comparing the sovereignty movement to Nazism.

They have also tried to promote the idea of Catalan nationalist ambitions as parochial and irrelevant. After a meeting with Catalan business leaders in Barcelona this month, Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister claimed not to have noticed any strong markers of regional identity. In a recent English-language interview with The Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister Rajoy described the hypothetical advent of Catalan independence as contrary to the world’s “natural evolution.” When addressing the Spanish public at the UN General Assembly, he went out of his way assure those in the chamber that none of his fellow world leaders had asked him about Catalonia.

Behind closed doors, however, it seems that Spanish officials are more concerned than their dismissive behavior implies: recently, Spain’s UN delegation drafted a report on how best to respond if Catalan leaders take their case to the international community in the wake of a successful referendum on independence. It asserted that Madrid could possibly draft security council allies into blocking Catalonia’s full statehood, but would be relatively powerless to stop the region’s admission as a General Assembly observer.

“Catalonia: The Next Partially-Recognized State” may not be as elegant a turn of phrase as those coined by activists, but it nonetheless haunts politicians in Madrid.

October 26, 2013

The origins of the British army

Filed under: Britain, History, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 09:07

A primer called “Boots on the Ground” at Think Defence provides a quick historical sketch of how the British army came to be:

It is worth reminding ourselves that up until Cromwell in effect there was no ‘Army’ as such.

Individual nobles raised troops top fight for the king in haphazard amounts and units, equipped according to their finances; and often with little relation to their feudal dues. A rich Knight often turned up to fight for or against the King with more and better equipped troops than a poor Earl.

The New model Army (more properly contemporaneously called the ‘Newly Modelled’ Army,(if I recall) changed that. Fed up with troops that would only fight under ‘Their’ commander and on ‘Their’ turf Parliament said (and I paraphrase):-

    ‘Sod this literally for a game of soldiers we need to get an Army we can command, if we are going to get any of this shit sorted’…

So the UK’s first professional full time paid and resourced Army was born.

The revolutionary Ideas of:

  • Paying the troops well and on time,
  • Concentrating on Moral, (through religious conformity it its case),
  • An organization of units according to modern requirements,
  • Proper logistics.
  • And a proper code of Military justice.

Worked so well that it pretty much kicked arse from the moment it hit the ground.

However with the restoration of the monarchy a lot of old attitudes re-emerged.

It was very much the case for hundreds of years that you joined ‘The Regiment’. Often named after the Colonel who was in command. The British Army seems at some points to have been almost an accidental conglomeration of like minded units a bit like a trade organisation of organisations who happened to wear uniforms and fight for the King.

OK, this was slowly chipped away at by events in the Napoleonic and Crimean wars, to the stage by the late 19th century it was an ‘Army’, but some traditions and mindsets seem to take an age to die.

For all the ‘esprit de corps’ it undoubtedly delivered, incidents of internecine ‘warfare’ between units hampering actions in the field are well recorded up to WWII and beyond.

It is worth reminding ourselves that we are only now returning to an army the same size as the one we entered the run up to World war 1 with. That’s the one that was so small by European power standards that when asked what he would do if the British Army invaded Germany in the 1890′s [Otto von Bismarck] replied ‘I would call the police and have it arrested’!

On the topic of internecine warfare between army units, regimental memories are long and opportunities to “pay off” old scores arise when dissimilar/unfriendly units are brigaded together. George MacDonald Fraser (author of the fantastic Flashman novels) mentioned in one of his MacAuslan stories that it was dangerous to let certain Highland regiments get too close to one another for fear they’d fight one another instead of the enemy (or overthrow the government).

I strongly disagree with the author’s belief that the regimental system should be scrapped, but he makes a reasonable case for that step (“reasonable” if you’ve never actually served in the army, that is…)

September 16, 2013

British battlefields and the belated preservation effort

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:02

In History Today, Julian Humphrys talks about the late start in preserving and interpreting the battlefields in Britain:

Few would disagree that battles have played a significant part in Britain’s history. The Norman Conquest after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 caused enormous social, political and cultural change; De Montfort’s victory at Lewes in 1264 led to the earliest forerunner of Parliament; Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn in 1314 helped secure Scotland’s independence from England while the battles of the mid-17th century helped change both the roles of Crown and Parliament and the relationship between the component parts of the United Kingdom. Furthermore the reputations of many great leaders were forged on the battlefield: Cromwell’s victories, for example, gave him both the opportunity and the desire to intervene on the national political stage. But why preserve the battlefields?

Part of the answer lies in the ground itself. Battlefields may contain important topographical and archaeological evidence, which can help us understand the events that took place on their soil. Walk the boggy ground at the foot of the steep slopes of Branxton Hill at Flodden and you’ll quickly understand how in 1513 advancing blocks of Scottish pikemen lost cohesion and momentum and floundered to bloody defeat at the hands of the Earl of Surrey’s English billmen (see James IV: Renaissance Monarch). By locating the fall of shot through metal detecting, archaeological projects at Edgehill (1642), Naseby (1645) and Culloden (1746) have helped us learn more about the dispositions of the armies and the course of the battles, while at Bosworth (1485) it has finally unearthed the actual location of the fighting itself.


It is sometimes said that Britain lags behind the US, Belgium and parts of France in the care, interpretation and promotion of its battlefields. Many more British schools visit the Western Front than they do the battlefields of the Wars of the Roses or the Civil Wars. There are a dozen First World War museums in and around Ypres alone, headed by the award-winning ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum in the town’s restored Cloth Hall. There are numerous bunkers and preserved or reconstructed sections of trench, over a hundred British and Commonwealth cemeteries, and countless walking tours, self-drive tours, coach tours, cycle tours, even balloon tours to choose from.

Many American Civil War battlefields are carefully tended, painstakingly interpreted and bristling with memorials. The field of Gettysburg (1863) is administered by the US National Park Service; with a staggering 1,300 monuments it has been described as one of the largest collections of outdoor sculpture in the world. But perhaps all this is to be expected, for while its civil war remains America’s most costly conflict and was fought at home, Britain has done much of its fighting abroad. Mention battlefields to a Briton and the chances are they will initially think of somewhere overseas, notably Ypres or the Somme. The Great War was in many ways our national Calvary — the first time that anything more than a relatively small British army took part in a major war, suffering mass casualties as a result. Furthermore much of it was fought just across the Channel within reach of the British visitor, most of whom will know of relatives who fought there.

June 18, 2013

“Call it Jihadi sushi”

Filed under: Middle East, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:00

The difficulty of choosing the right side in the Syrian civil war is that there may not be one:

At his awkward press conference with David Cameron on Sunday, Vladimir Putin made an astonishing claim — the Syrian rebels eat people. It happens to be true. Putin was presumably referring to Abu Sakkar, a rebel leader who videoed himself eating a combatant’s lung. Sakkar explained that he did it in revenge for footage he found on the dead man’s phone of the government soldier raping women. “I swear to God we will eat your hearts and your livers, you soldiers of Bashar the dog!” cried Sakkar. For some Islamists, dedicating such an act to God is not as sacrilegious as it sounds. Students at Al Ahzar University in Cairo — an educational institution once graced by Obama’s presence — have access to a textbook that teaches it’s okay to eat apostates so long as the meat is not cooked. Call it Jihadi sushi.

The story underlines how difficult it is to choose the side of good in Syria: Assad’s men are rapists, the rebels are cannibals. When deciding what to do, the West has to avoid two templates of disaster. We don’t want another Rwanda, when the West stood aside and tolerated a genocide and we don’t want another Iraq, when the West got involved and stayed involved almost for a decade.

What Britain, France and America have decided to do is something in-between. Ignore the hyperbole about intervention from some in the press: at this stage all the alliance is threatening is to give logistical support to the rebels through non-military aid and a no-fly zone. Of course, this could escalate. But no Western leader wants to put boots on the ground and the goal of the sabre-rattling is actually to prod Russia into dragging Assad to the negotiating table at the proposed conference in Geneva (by the way, Putin might deliver on that but it’s far less likely that we’ll get the rebels to play ball on our side). We are deliberately internationalising the conflict, turning it into a giant game of chicken between America and Russia in the hope that they will resolve the war on behalf of the Syrian combatants.

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