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
December 6, 2014
July 12, 2014
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.’
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.
November 18, 2012
John Scalzi is having mixed reactions to all the Twitter updates about Lincoln and theatres:
Man, if I see another joke about Lincoln and theaters, I might just have to shoot someone.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) November 18, 2012
Fun fact: John Wilkes Booth is my great-great-great(etc) uncle. It’s true. Also: He has the same birthday as me.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) November 18, 2012
And he wrote about his infamous relative a few years ago:
Every family should have an interesting skeleton in the family closet. In my family, it’s John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln, who, of course, was the President of the United States during the American Civil War. Booth assassinated Lincoln not long after the cessation of hostilities between the Union and the Confederacy, by sneaking into the President’s box at Ford’s Theater (the show: Our American Cousin) and shooting him in the back of the head with a pistol. Booth then leaped from the box to the stage, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus it is with tyrants”) and “The South is avenged.” He broke his leg but managed to escape nevertheless. However, eleven days later, he was discovered in a barn, burned out, and then shot (by himself or by a soldier, it’s unclear). He died shortly thereafter. Some maintain that Booth’s body was never positively identified, so it’s possible he actually escaped. Either way, he’s dead now.
For the record, I’m not a direct descendant — my line goes through one of his nine other siblings, making him something along the lines of a great-great-great-great-great-grand-uncle. Whenever I mention my relationship to him, though, people’s eyes get wide, their jaws go momentarily slack, and some people actually back up a step, as if a long dormant assassination gene might suddenly fire up, and they’d be the unlucky recipient. I get a kick out of that. Then I go for the extra point my mentioning that John Wilkes and I have the same birthday: May 10, 131 years apart. By the time I mention I get edgy handling pennies and five dollar bills, people begin to wend their way to the nearest door.
July 25, 2012
At the Simple Justice blog, Scott H. Greenfield explains why New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is so very, very wrong to call for a national police strike:
There are some virtues that come with having a billionaire mayor. He’s not easy to bribe, for example, so you know whatever comes out of his mouth does so honestly. And therein lies the downside when he says something like this:
“I don’t understand why the police officers across this country don’t stand up collectively and say, ‘We’re going to go on strike. We’re not going to protect you. Unless you, the public, through your legislature, do what’s required to keep us safe,’” Bloomberg said on CNN Monday night.
Within this idiotic comment are two fallacious assumptions. The first is the “war on cops” tripe, that there is a trend against cops, putting them at increasing risk of harm from gun-toting criminals. Radley Balko has beaten that myth to death. Mike Riggs too. It’s a good myth to further a public agenda in favor of order at the expense of law, but it just doesn’t hold water.
The second, however, is the mayor’s encouragement to police to take the First Rule of Policing a step further than ever before, to use their singular authority to hold a nation hostage. This is perhaps the most dangerous idea Bloomberg could promote.
[. . .]
Ironically, the only means of staying this armed takeover, should the police ever come to recognize that they have the power if not the authority to seize control, would be guns in the hands of citizens. No rational person could want it to come to such a battle.
So while a billionaire mayor may be above the influences that drive mere mortals, they sometimes utter the most insanely foolish things that take us to a place we must never go. The day the police, as a whole, think they can use their posts to take our government hostage is the day every citizen will need to dust off his arms. The day a billionaire mayor suggests that the police should use their power to influence our government is a day he’s been in office too long.
Update: Walter Olson at the Cato@Liberty blog:
It’s enough to make you wonder whether Bloomberg is secretly a passionate admirer of the Second Amendment and keeps saying things this outrageous from a covert intent to sabotage the case for gun control.
July 24, 2012
Brendan O’Neill wonders how gun control — traditionally a racist and xenophobic attempt to disarm blacks and foreigners — became a left-wing policy:
One of the great mysteries of modern politics is how gun control came to be seen as a natural Left-wing cause. Following the horrific shootings in Aurora, Denver, the usual lineup of Left-liberal activists and commentators have pleaded, for the ten thousandth time, for America to get rid of its stupid constitutional guarantee of the right to bear arms and to clamp down on gun ownership. This is the default setting of virtually every observer who considers himself of the Left, particularly those outside of America, who love nothing more than to look down their long noses at the Wild West-style, gun-wielding, blood-spattered mess they believe modern America to be.
Which is all a bit weird, because for years — for two centuries, in fact — gun control was a largely Right-wing, reactionary campaign issue, not a Left-wing one. The fact that it has now been adopted by Leftists is very revealing indeed.
[. . .]
In the modern period, too, there was a hugely reactionary bent to gun-control campaigns. In the early 20th century new laws, such as the 1911 Sullivan Law in New York City, were passed to prevent the huge influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe from getting their hands on guns. As Gary Kleck puts it in his book Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America, gun control was anything but a liberal cause: “In the 19th and early 20th century, gun-control laws were often targeted at blacks in the south and the foreign-born in the north.”
The Gun Control Act of 1968 was ostensibly passed in response to assassinations of Robert F Kennedy and Martin Luther King, but its real targets were inner-city black communities where there had been violent riots for three summers running and where some black activists were beginning to arm themselves. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton, recognising that his liberal supporters were converting en masse to the cause of gun control, started to talk about the “evil” of assault rifles. Who tended to own assault rifles? “Drug dealers, street gang members and other violent criminals”, the Clinton adminstration said — long-recognised polite political codewords for blacks and Latinos.
Update: Dan Baum on the reduction in gun crime across the US by nearly half over the last two decades.
Among the many ways America differs from other countries when it comes to guns is that when a mass shooting happens in the United States, it’s a gun story. How an obviously sick man could buy a gun; how terrible it is that guns are abundant; how we must ban particular types of guns that are especially dangerous. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence responded to the news with a gun-control petition. Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times has weighed in with an online column saying that “Politicians are far too cowardly to address gun violence . . . which keeps us from taking practical measures to avoid senseless shootings.”
Compare that to the coverage and conversation after Anders Behring Breivik murdered sixty-nine people on the island of Utøya in Norway, a year ago next Sunday. Nobody focused on the gun. I had a hard time learning from the news reports what type of gun he used. Nobody asked, “How did he get a gun?” That seemed strange, because it’s much harder to get a gun in Europe than it is here. But everybody, even the American media, seemed to understand that the heart of the Utøya massacre story was a tragically deranged man, not the rifle he fired. Instead of wringing their hands over the gun Breivik used, Norwegians saw the tragedy as the opening to a conversation about the rise of right-wing extremism in their country.
Rosenthal is wrong, by the way, that politicians haven’t addressed gun violence. They have done so brilliantly, in a million different ways, which helps explain why the rate of violent crime is about half what it was twenty years ago. They simply haven’t used gun control to do it. Gun laws are far looser than they were twenty years ago, even while crime is plunging — a galling juxtaposition for those who place their faith in tougher gun laws. The drop in violence is one of our few unalloyed public-policy success stories, though perhaps not for those who bemoan an “epidemic of gun violence” that doesn’t exist anymore in order to make a political point.
July 7, 2012
Robert Fulford on the religious strife in Mali:
In the modern West, an iconoclast is someone who criticizes cherished beliefs. The people we call iconoclasts deal in nothing more dangerous than opinion. But in regions dominated by Islamists that term becomes painfully literal.
It means breaking icons — destroying sculpture and desecrating tombs for the purpose of religious purity. It means gangs of thugs with axes and dynamite and the need to impose their beliefs on others.
This week the world learned that iconoclasm has found a new home in the wretched African state of Mali. A landlocked, geographically misshapen nation of 14.5 million, Mali has borders with seven other countries. At the moment, Malian refugees are crossing three of those borders (Mauritania’s, Niger’s and Burkina Faso’s) to escape the results of the Islamist rebellion that overturned their national government in March.
The dominant rebels belong to Ansar Dine, which means “Defenders of the Faith.” They are Sunnis allied with al-Qaeda. They now control northern Mali and they have put the destruction of graves and monuments at the top of their agenda.
In the last week or so they have destroyed six graves of ancient Sufi saints. At a 15th-century mosque in Timbuktu they took their axes to an entrance considered sacred. According to local belief, it was expected the door would remain closed till the world ended.
This is a Muslim vs. Muslim conflict. A spokesman for Ansar Dine summarized the party line on venerating Sufi shrines: It’s un-Islamic. “What doesn’t correspond to Islam, we are going to correct.” It’s what must be done to defend the faith.