Quotulatiousness

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.

June 5, 2013

US policy on Syria is 1979 all over again

Filed under: Middle East,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:38

In the Miami Herald, Glenn Garvin points out that the US went down this geopolitical path in 1979, with less than stellar results:

The problem in our capital is not that there’s too much division between Republicans and Democrats, but that they’ve merged into a single War Party when it comes to the Middle East.

There might have been at least a tenuous case to be made for intervention in Syria back at the beginning of its civil war, at least if you accept the view that the United States cannot disengage from the Middle East because it is, for the foreseeable future, joined at the hip with Israel.

Unlike Libya or Somalia, strategically useless states in the middle of nowhere in which Washington mysteriously chose to intervene, Syria is a pivot point in the Middle East. It shares long borders with our two major allies in the region, Israel and Jordan, who cannot help but be affected by what goes on in Syria.

Two years ago, we could have acted decisively to end the Syrian civil war before it really got started. We could have made a realpolitik decision to support Assad, who, though a vicious brute to his own people, mostly minds his own business. Or we could have thrown in wholeheartedly with the rebels, picking one faction to provide with arms and international prestige, keeping (maybe) the worst elements out of power.

Instead, the Obama administration dithered, denouncing Assad and drawing lines in the sand over his behavior, then backing away every time he crossed one. We managed to alienate both sides as well as convincing all concerned that our bark had no bite.

In short, Obama has adopted as his guide Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy of 1979, when the United States cluelessly half-yanked the rug from beneath the shah in Iran and Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, then primly tsk-tsked their opponents. The eventual result was that two of our allies were replaced with regimes implacably hostile to our interests, which quickly began destabilizing everything around them. Sadly, that’s now the best possible outcome in Syria. If the War Party get its way, you’ll see the worst.

H/T to Nick Gillespie for the link.

May 3, 2013

Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia at 75

Filed under: History,Media,Politics — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:05

In the sp!ked review of books, Mick Hume looks at the book that got Orwell tossed out of the inner circle of leftist writers, not because it was bad, but because it was honest (and made Stalinism look too similar to Hitlerism):

George Orwell could have been killed twice in the Spanish Civil War. Once when he was shot in the throat by General Franco’s fascist forces; then when he was hunted by official Communist agents who, with the backing of Stalin’s Soviet Union, stabbed the revolution in the back and imprisoned, tortured and killed leading leftists and anarchists who were ostensibly on the same Republican side. Orwell learned the hardest way that the war against fascism in Spain was also a civil war against Stalinism.

Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s famous account of his time in Spain from his arrival in Barcelona on Boxing Day 1936 to his escape in June 1937, has just reached its seventy-fifth anniversary. Like its author, the book almost didn’t make it either. The radical journalist and author’s usual publisher, Victor Gollancz, turned the book down without even seeing the manuscript, insisting that he would not publish anything ‘which could harm the fight against fascism’ by criticising the Communists.

Most of those from Britain and Europe who went to write about and fight in the Spanish Civil War took a similarly one-eyed view and followed the pro-Soviet line. What was unique about Orwell was that he hated fascism, but also stood apart from the official Stalinist-dominated left of his time. The radical maverick wrote about what he saw in Spain, rather than simply what he was told was true — although he also warned his readers to ‘beware my partisanship’ when seeking an objective account. He questioned the ‘official’ Stalinist-dictated account of events in Barcelona and elsewhere that was accepted around the world. This heresy made him the subject of a hate campaign when Homage to Catalonia was finally published in 1938, a campaign which continued well into the 1980s.

[. . .]

Orwell’s brilliant firsthand account of the conflict stands apart from and well above the I-was-there school of emotive, narcissistic war reporting we witness too often today. He also attempts to put his personal experiences into some proper political context, in two chapters now removed (at his request) from the narrative text and published at the end as appendices.

Here, Orwell closely interrogates and challenges the ‘official version’ of events in Barcelona, put about by the Communists and their many international apologists to justify their brutal repression of the non-Stalinist left. As he unravels the twisting of truth by propaganda organs such as the CPGB’s Daily Worker, you can almost see the ideas he was soon to express in his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. He is also cutting about the way that the Communists simply branded their opponents as ‘Social-fascists’ and ‘Trotsky-Fascists’ to avoid engaging in important political arguments. Many who express their admiration for Orwell today have yet to absorb his point that screaming ‘Fascists!’ in the faces of those you disagree with is not the same thing as making your case. ‘Libel’, as he concludes, ‘settles nothing’.

January 22, 2013

The obscure, unremembered — but bloodiest — battle in England

Filed under: Britain,History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:42

Unless you paid very close attention to British history, you may not even have heard of the bloodiest battle in England:

Consider, for example, Towton — the bloodiest battle on English soil, in which most of our nobility and their retainers took part and in which 28,000 people are said to have died. Since the population of the time was not much more than three million, that’s the equivalent of a battle today costing the lives of half a million.

If you were on the wrong side, that was it: curtains. Even if you survived the fighting you faced the greater horror of being ‘attainted’. This meant being hanged, drawn and quartered, while your goods were confiscated and your heirs disinherited in perpetuity. Such was the fate of 60 Lancastrian knights and gentlemen (including 25 MPs — so it wasn’t all bad…) after Towton.

As with the Norman Conquest and the first world war, the war’s victims numbered disproportionately among the English upper classes. ‘Out of 70 adult peers during this period, over 50 are known to have fought in battles they had to win if they wanted to stay alive,’ notes Desmond Seward, in his superb The Wars Of The Roses. Entire noble families were exterminated. In one campaign alone — 1460 to 1461 — 12 noblemen were killed and six beheaded, over a third of the English peerage.

And there was no way of opting out. If you were one of the 50 or 60 great families, you were too prominent politically and socially, and your private army was too valuable, to permit your remaining neutral. This, in turn, meant that your myriad kinsmen, retainers, and hangers-on had to follow you into battle, whether they liked it or not. As a government spokesman told the House of Commons in 1475, ‘None [of us] hath escaped.’

Update: Colby Cosh sent along a link to this Economist article from 2010:

Towton is a nondescript village in northern England, between the cities of York and Leeds. Many Britons have never heard of it: school history tends to skip the 400-or-so years between 1066 and the start of the Tudor era. Visitors have to look hard to spot the small roadside cross that marks the site of perhaps the bloodiest battle ever fought in England. Yet the clash was a turning point in the Wars of the Roses. And, almost 550 years later, the site is changing our understanding of medieval battle.

In Shakespeare’s cycle of eight plays, the story of the Wars of the Roses is told as an epic drama. In reality it was a messy series of civil wars — an on-again, off-again conflict pitting supporters of the ruling Lancastrian monarchy against backers of the house of York. According to Helen Castor, a historian at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, the wars arose from the slow breakdown of English government under Henry VI, a man who was prone to bouts of mental illness and “curiously incapable” even when well. As decision-making under Henry drifted, factions formed and enmities deepened. These spiralling conflicts eventually drove Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, to assert his own claim to the throne. York was named Henry’s heir, but he was killed in December 1460. His 18-year-old son, Edward, proclaimed himself king just before the battle of Towton.

That set the stage for a vicious fight. Edward had his father and brother to avenge. After killing him, Lancastrian forces had impaled York’s head on a lance and adorned it with a paper crown. Following years of skirmishes others had scores to settle, too. In previous encounters, efforts had been made to spare rank-and-file soldiers. At Towton, orders went out that no quarter be given. This was to be winner-takes-all, a brutal fight to the death.

The result was a crushing victory for the Yorkists and for the young king. Edward IV went on to rule, with a brief interruption, until his death 22 years later — a death that triggered the final stage of the conflict and the rise of a new dynasty under Henry Tudor. The recorded death toll at Towton may well have been inflated to burnish the legend of Edward’s ascent to the crown. Yet there can be little doubt it was an unusually large confrontation.

The archaeological details of the battlefield excavations are quite interesting. Gruesome, but interesting.

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